Properties and Uses of Bakelite

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Bakelite can be molded, and in this regard was better than celluloid and also less expensive to make. Moreover, it could be molded very quickly, an enormous advantage in mass production processes where many identical units were produced one after the other. Bakelite is a thermosetting resin—that is, once molded, it retains its shape even if heated or subjected to various solvents.

Bakelite was also particularly suitable for the emerging electrical and automobile industries because of its extraordinarily high resistance (not only to electricity, but to heat and chemical action as well). It was soon used for all non-conducting parts of radios and other electrical devices, such as bases and sockets for light bulbs and electron tubes, supports for any type of electrical components, automobile distributor caps and other insulators.

Along with its electrical uses, molded Bakelite found a place in almost every area of modern life. From novelty jewelry and iron handles to telephones and washing-machines impellers, Bakelite was seen everywhere and was a constant presence in the technological infrastructure. The Bakelite Corporation adopted as its logo the mathematical symbol for infinity and the slogan, "The Material of a Thousand Uses," but they recognized no boundaries for their material.

The Achilles heel was color. The pure Bakelite resin was lovely amber, and it could take other colors as well. Unfortunately, it was quite brittle and had to be strengthened by "filling" with other substances, usually cellulose in the form of sawdust. After filling, all colors came out opaque at best and often dull and muddy. Ultimately, Bakelite was replaced by other plastics that shared its desirable qualities, but could also take bright colors.

Today, only one or two firms now make phenolic resins, but Baekeland's creation set the mold for the modern plastics industry.