Baekeland was born in the Belgian city of Ghent on 14 November 1863. His parents were of modest circumstances. At the age of seventeen Baekeland entered Ghent University on a scholarship, and only four years later he graduated cum laude with a doctoral degree in the natural sciences. He then married his professor’s daughter and left for the United States on a travelling fellowship. Combining his expertise with a predilection for photography, he set up his own photographic factory near New York. He developed a light-sensitive photographic paper called ‘Velox’ that became so revolutionary and successful that it attracted the notice of the powerful Eastman Kodak Company of New York. In 1899 George Eastman offered Baekeland and his companions the huge sum of $750,000 for the patent rights and his entire factory. In addition Baekeland had to promise to refrain from further involvement in the business of photography for twenty years. This suddenly acquired wealth gave Baekeland the freedom to pursue his own interests. “I’m going to build a small laboratory,” he wrote to his Belgian friend Remouchamps on 21 July 1899, “in order to follow my scientific interests, and I don’t know if it will be on the Hudson or in some other place.” It was indeed in Yonkers, on the Hudson River in New York, where around 1905 he returned to an earlier study of synthetic resins. He was looking for a substitute for natural resins – thanks to the growing use of electricity the demand for insulating materials was increasing rapidly. By the use of a catalyst he found that he could control the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde under heat and pressure to produce a new phenolic polymer with remarkable characteristics: bakelite. On 13 July 1907 the first ‘heat and pressure patent’ was granted in the United States under number 942699.
In 1910 Baekeland joined with a German phenol supplier to establish the first factory to produce the new product: the Bakelite Gesellschaft m.b.H. in Erkner near Berlin. In less than five months a second factory was set up in the United States: the General Bakelite Company in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Bakelite offered unforeseen possibilities: the raw materials phenol and formaldehyde were readily available in large quantities, while the use of moulding powder made mechanized production possible on a large scale. The addition of fillers and colouring agents made still further applications possible. These, together with its excellent properties as an electric insulator, led to a worldwide run on the new material. In response, Baekeland offered already existing industries licenses to produce their own bakelite.