It was to take until December 1909 before Baekeland was granted all the US patents. He already started to reach out to the scientific and industrial communities earlier than this: “In the USA, he drew attention to Bakelite in a lecture to the American Chemical Society in New York on 5. February 1909” (Collin 2007, 13).
From 23. March 1909 onwards, Baekeland specifically publicised Bakelite as “a new synthetic resin” in Germany too in a series of articles printed in “Chemiker-Zeitung” (Baekeland 1909 and Raubach 1960, 37). He had filed an application in Germany for his heat and pressure patent on 31. January 1908 (DRP 233803: “Process for manufacturing condensation products from phenols and formaldehyde”). In his History of Bakelite Limited, which appeared in London in 1947, T. J. Fielding later wrote: “The entire patent specification was essentially the birth certificate of the modern plastics industry” (quoted from Fiell and Fiell 2009, 13). The central passage of the patent specification is as follows:
“What the process consists of is that a mixture of phenols and formaldehyde or their reaction products is exposed to the combined influence of heat and pressure until the resulting condensation product is hard, does not melt and is insoluble. The simultaneous application of pressure makes it possible to use higher temperatures and thus to accelerate and complete the reaction with the final result that the above-mentioned hard, non-meltable and insoluble condensation product is created. Attempts have already been made to achieve the same result by means of slow heating at a maximum temperature of 100°. These processes disclosed in the past are very time-consuming, because days, weeks and even months are needed to reach a certain degree of hardness, non-meltability and insolubility. Their basis is in addition to remove the solvent (alcohols, glycerine, camphor, phenols) gradually, because the higher temperatures cannot be applied when only heat is used, as end product degradation and, in consequence, swelling and porosity are unavoidable otherwise. However, the simultaneous application of pressure and heat permits the use of higher temperatures without any adverse effects and thus acceleration of the condensation process and optimisation of the properties of the end product.”
Why Bakelite was manufactured in Germany first
Baekeland’s publications about his “Bakelite process” very soon aroused tremendous interest among the executives of Rütgerswerke in Erkner, a company which has already been mentioned. In 1859, Julius Rütgers (1830-1903) had established an impregnation facility for railway sleepers in the small town in Brandenburg on the outskirts of Berlin. The wooden sleepers, which were exposed to the wind and weather, were impregnated with creosote to stop them rotting. The creosote had to be imported from England, because there was “no tar processing of any significance” in Germany at the time” […] in spite of the substantial amount of tar produced by gasworks” (Anonymous 2010a, 65). To change this, Rütgers built a coal tar refinery in Erkner in 1860, “the second of its kind in Germany after Ernst Sell in Offenbach” (Collin 2010, 28), and produced its impregnation oil in-house from then onwards. Enormous amounts of phenol were produced in this context, for which the company had no use. Baekeland’s invention now promised to recycle the waste product and turn it into a lucrative material.
So Rütgers’ head chemist, Dr Max Weger (1869-1944) agreed with the Managing Director Sally Segall (1866-1925) to invite Baekeland to Erkner in the summer of 1909 (Retzlaff 2010, 31), in order to acquire the patent rights for continental Europe from him. Baekeland consented and Rütgerswerke became a licensee and thus the first manufacturer of Bakelite anywhere in the world. At the end of 1909, the first phenolic resin production unit – modelled on Baekeland’s “Old Faithful” – was brought into operation for trial production purposes in the company’s old cooperage under Weger’s management. “There is no large-scale production in America yet. Dr B. is still making all the Bakelite in his garden house in Yonkers with two chemists and his chauffeur”, Max Weger reported in April 1910 on returning from a trip to the States, where he had worked on the Bakelite technology with Baekeland (quoted from Retzlaff 2010, 30). Bakelite Gesellschaft m. b. H. Erkner-Berlin was established on 25. May 1910, five months earlier than General Bakelite Company in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, USA. While Rütgerswerke produced 48 tonnes of Bakelite in 1911, the figure had already increased to 192 tonnes by 1913 (Retzlaff 2010, 32), so that a separate Bakelite factory was set up after 1914 right opposite the tar refinery that provided the phenol.
Since Bakelite production had its world premiere in Erkner, Germany can claim to be “the birthplace of the first synthetic plastic in the world” (Raubach 1960, 40) and thus “the birthplace of the plastics era” (Heimatverein Erkner 2013, 19). The phenolic resin was usually supplied in the form of paste, powder or slabs, which were then processed into commodities elsewhere, initially using the compression moulding process before switching to the transfer moulding process in 1928; nowadays the injection moulding process is generally used (more details can be found at Anonymous 2010d, 82-83, and Braun 2010, 25). Böhme and Ludwig 2012, 44 has the following to say about the compression moulding process:
“The metered amount […] of moulding compound – pre-heated if necessary – is filled in a heated mould. The compound heats up and liquifies in the enclosed mould, flows into the cavities of the mould and starts to set. The water that is released during the setting process escapes as steam […]. After the material has set, the mould is opened and the moulding can be removed.”
Rütgerswerke sold the first batches of Bakelite to the electrical engineering companies Siemens and AEG, which were based in Berlin. “The first assessment of Bakelite came from the Siemens cable plant. In the annual report of 31. October 1909, it is described as a good new insulation material” (Koßmehl 2010, 11). In a letter to his former fellow student in Ghent, Dr Edward Remouchamps, in 1908, the inventor had expressed confidence that there was a wide range of other, as yet unknown, potential applications for Bakelite: “I have discovered a new synthetic organic product called Bakelite, which already has numerous practical applications and which will soon be finding many more in dozens of industries” (quoted from Schäfke 1987, 12). And it did not in fact take long before the synthetic resin that was only considered to be a shellac substitute and thus supposedly restricted to special applications proved to be the “material for a thousand purposes” or the “substance with thousands of possibilities” and was advertised as such, so that a sideways figure eight – the mathematical infinity symbol – was subsequently added to the logo of the trademark (Brandenburger 1938, 21), sometimes with and sometimes without the letter B above it (Collin 2007, 26).
“Material for a thousand purposes”
Not only electrical engineering but also machine manufacturing, the optical industry, the furniture industry, automotive, airplane and measuring instrument production discovered phenolic resin for their operations. Moulding compounds also came to be used more and more for the production of household goods and other everyday commodities and/or the housings for them (Schrader 1962, 34). The following alphabetical list is perhaps the best illustration of the amazing variety of different applications: ashtrays, billiard balls, brake pads (bonding agent), buttons for textiles, cameras, clothes irons, coffee machines, distributor caps, food processors, fountain pens, gramophone records, hair dryers, handles for pots and pans, ignition coils, ink pads, knobs, lamp sockets, laundry sprayers, light switches, loudspeakers, pencil sharpeners, plugs and plug sockets, radios, sewing machines, slide viewers, steering wheels, telephones, vacuum cleaners, welding tongs, etc. etc. etc. …
The versatility of Bakelite was due to an unparalleled property profile: quite apart from its high hardness level, heat & acid resistance, phenolic resin has the not inconsiderable advantage of lower weight than metals. “Bakelite is a substance that in its different forms has the benefits of hard rubber, Japanese lacquerware and celluloid and has even better properties than these products in some respects”: this is what General Bakelite Company said in an information brochure that appeared in March 1912 (quoted from Fiell and Fiell 2009, 14). As Baekeland’s patent specification already stated, the properties of the material can be improved decisively by incorporating filling agents, “as phenolic resin alone is very brittle: asbestos improves heat resistance, sawdust prevents water absorption, fabric increases pressure resistance” (Schäfke 1987, 14). Rock flour, mica, fibreglass and cellulose papers also proved effective (Domininghaus 1969, 58). “These additives turn the resins into moulding compounds. The resin acts as a bonding agent and is homogenised with the fillers on hot mixing rollers or in continuously operating kneaders. In this context, the degree of condensation increases from the resol stage to the resitol stage” (ibid., 58). In the initial decades, sawdust was the filler of choice (Brandenburger 1938, 21-23). The problem: “Products containing sawdust are less durable than ones with glass or asbestos filling. Mould or bacterial growth can also occur when organic filling agents are used” (Waentig and Ludwig 2012, 11).
Bakelite was a welcome challenge to designers. They created entirely new shapes for commodities that had no historical precedents. Although phenolic resin is similar in colour to amber, its colour can be changed by incorporating pigments. Soot guarantees black colours. “Interesting colour nuances” can also be “achieved” (Schäfke 1987, 15) by high pressure distributing the colourants in the moulding press. Objects made out of Bakelite have visual appeal, not least of all because of their surface gloss.
The “Volksempfänger” (VE 301), an inexpensive radio in a Bakelite cabinet, which was presented at the Berlin Radio Show in August 1933 and double-digit millions of which were commissioned by the Nazi authorities, became the most well-known and by far the most common phenolic resin product. It consisted of a phenolic resin fast-moulding compound filled with sawdust that was based on novolacs with a hexamethylentetramine setting agent, produced primarily by Bakelite Erkner and at the Essen moulding plant of Gesellschaft für Teerverwertung mbH, Duisburg-Meiderich, that was a Rütgers competitor (Collin 2003, 158, and Collin 2007, 17).
Because competition had in the meantime begun: Baekeland’s patents had expired on 31. January 1930, when Bakelite GmbH’s monopoly ended (Retzlaff 2010, 32). More than 30 other factories now produced phenolic resin compounds in Germany alone (Raubach 1960, 40). Bakelite continued to be protected as a trademark, on the other hand, because it was possible to extent this right every ten years in exchange for payment (ibid., 40). Before 1930, Baekeland had faced repeated patent infringements and had taken legal action against them:
“Baekeland generally won the numerous court cases against plagiarists. In the end, practically all of Baekeland’s rivals co-operated with him and most of them were soon among his best friends. In 1922, Baekeland merged Condensite Company of America (with a production location in Bloomfield, N. J,) and Redmanol Chemical Products Corporation (with a plant in Chicago) with his own company to form a holding company known as ‘Bakelite Corporation’” (Collin 2007, 14).
In 1919, a settlement was, incidentally, reached with Hermann Römmler AG (based in Spremberg/Lower Lusatia), which manufactured phenolic resins with a heat-and-pressure setting process that was developed independently from Baekeland and which marketed them under the name “Hares” (see Raubach 1960, 40, and Braun 2013, 214).
Germany continued to be the leading manufacturer of Bakelite. In the mid-1930s, it accounted for some 30 per cent of global phenolic resin production (Brandenburger 1938, 21): “It has eight large factories, which manufacture about 30,000,000 kg of moulding powder per year that is processed into mouldings at about 1,500 different plants” (ibid., 21). Leo Hendrik Baekeland was therefore “one of the very few who […] fate allowed to enjoy the benefits of their work” (ibid., 19) – in contrast, for example, to the PVC pioneer Fritz Klatte (see Topic of the Month Jan./Feb. 2018: “A man who was 20 years ahead of his time”). A judgement that cannot be restricted to economic success alone: Baekeland was president of important chemical associations, while many scientific societies in Europe made him an honorary member (summary at Collin 2007, 15). In 1939, when he was 76 years old, the “father of Bakelite” sold General Bakelite Company to Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation and retired (ibid., 14). On 23. February 1944, he died in a sanatorium in Beacon/New York from the after-effects of a stroke. Baekeland’s grave is in the cemetery of Sleepy Hollow/New York. “He left his heirs a large inheritance, but his innovative skills were not passed on to them” (Schmutzler 1993, 25).
In the year Baekeland – and, incidentally, Max Weger too – died, global phenolic resin production amounted to 175,000 tonnes, to which the German Bakelite company in Erkner contributed 13,000 tonnes or about eight per cent. All in all, some 250,000 tonnes of plastics were produced in Germany in 1944 (Collin 2007, 17), most of them thermosetting phenolic resin and urea-formaldehyde moulding compounds. Hermann Römmler AG in Spremberg was the primary source of the latter, which it marketed under the brand names Alboresin and later Resopal and Sprelacart. This meant that Germany was the second-largest plastics manufacturer in the world in the penultimate year of the Second World War, right after the United States.
On 8. March 1944, only a good two weeks after Baekeland’s death, air raids by the Allies destroyed parts of the Bakelite plant and the Erkner tar refinery. Some of the production equipment and skilled personnel were transferred to the Rütgerswerke facilities in Munich-Pasing and Dohna near Dresden, so that the phenolic resin production that was vital to the war effort could continue (Collin 2007, 18). On 21. April 1945, the Red Army marched into Erkner and production there was stopped. The remaining equipment was dismantled to some extent.
Not a material of the past
Bakelite was and is not an outdated plastic as a result – and it played a significant role in post-war East and West Germany. In Brandenburg, the expropriated company, that was now publicly owned, was re-established as “VEB Plasta Kunstharz- und Pressmassenfabrik Erkner” on 23. August 1948 (Collin 2003, 159). In the East German era, not only VEB Plasta Erkner but also VEB Plasta Espenhain produced phenolic resins and moulding compounds under the brand name “Plastadur”. Although objects made from phenolic resin were banned from household use in the early 1950s, so that they did not come into contact with food and have an adverse impact on their smell and taste, demand for phenolic resins in East Germany continued to be strong, because VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau started in the autumn of 1957 to mould the “rust-proof( ), thermoset plastic bodywork” of the Trabant, “that was unique anywhere in the world( )” from resol and short-fibre cotton matting known as linters (Collin 2003, 162, and Collin 2007, 22). Schrader 1962, 36, says:
“For the first time anywhere in the world, car bodies made from phenolic resin moulding compounds are being used for mass production in the German Democratic Republic. Cotton linters are used […] as the filling material. They are processed into mats before moulding and are cut to the right size for the moulded parts that are to be manufactured, such as bonnets, doors etc. Once they have been cut to size, the comparatively large mats, to which the resin has already been added, are then laid into the moulds, which have been heated up in advance. […] No colourants have been added to the moulded parts; instead of this, paint is sprayed onto them following surface treatment, in a similar way to bodies made of sheet steel. […] The thermoset bodies have the following particular advantages over the steel bodies that have been standard up to now: 1. They are corrosion-resistant, 2. They are lighter, 3. They provide better heat insulation, 4. They absorb sound better.”
Until 1991, when the last “Trabi” left the assembly line, VEB Plasta Erkner produced 5,000 tonnes of resol per year for this purpose (Collin 2007, 23). “In addition to the traditional ammonia-condensed Bakelite resol resin 100, the Plasta research department developed two other new resol products for this application: one involving condensation in the presence of aniline and magnesium oxide and another one involving aniline alone. Initially, the three resol products were blended to produce the Trabant body […]. At the beginning of the 1980s, body production was then converted to a single resin, the resol modified with aniline” (ibid., 23). VEB Plasta was privatised by the Treuhandanstalt in 1992 and has changed hands several times. Since 2014, it has belonged to Prefere Resins Germany GmbH (cf. www.capiton.de/beteiligungen/prefere-resins).
Bakelite became the “market leader for thermoset plastics” in West Germany too (Collin 2003, 165). Since the production capacity of the Rütgers tar refinery in Munich-Pasing, that was not destroyed and was brought back into operation in 1948, quickly reached its limits, the company expanded to Letmathe in the Sauerland area – now part of the city of Iserlohn – in 1950. In 1957, the Duisburg-Meiderich plant started phenolic resin production as part of Bakelite AG. Both plants were taken over by the US chemical company Hexion in 2004.
Due to the success achieved by thermoplastics, the share of plastics production of which increased from 35 to 50 per cent at the beginning of the 1950s (ibid., 166), thermosets and thus phenolic resins too soon fell behind, however. “In 1955, thermosets and thermoplastics held roughly equal shares of the total world production of 3.3 million tonnes. In 1964, thermosets accounted for 28% of total plastics production, which had increased to 12.4 million tonnes […]. Today, about 200 million tonnes of plastics are manufactured per year; about 15% of them are thermosets and 3% are phenolic resins” (ibid., 166). In view of this development, it is easy to overlook the fact that larger volumes of phenolic resins are being produced today than in Bakelite’s heyday: during the period between 1970 and 2003, production of phenolic resins increased an incredible twenty times over (ibid., 166). So the success story is continuing – as is only to be expected of a material with the infinity symbol.
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