- Beyond Bakelite: Leo Baekeland and the Business of Science and Invention by Joris Mercelis
About forty-five years ago, when I was completing my doctoral dissertation on the history of the first plastics, the supervisor of my Smithsonian fellowship, the curator of chemistry, dropped by my desk with a small notebook in his hand and said, "You might want to take a look at this." I can still visualize the little item, and my excitement in handling it was palpable—it was the first in a series of laboratory notebooks that Leo Baekeland, Belgian-American chemist, began to keep in 1907 on new experiments with the products of reacting phenol with formaldehyde. The result of these experiments was a novel plastic, unlike anything ever made before, which Baekeland immediately called "Bakelite."
Over the years, that little notebook was joined at the Smithsonian by many others, as well as diaries, correspondence, and a host of other materials, such that the "Leo H. Baekeland Papers" now amount to 15 cubic feet in fifty-nine boxes, covering the life and work of the inventor-entrepreneur in an intimate detail available for only a few other American inventors. This work by Joris Mercelis is the latest of a number of scholarly works fostered by the collection (one or two pre-dating the collection's Smithsonian residence). These works use the Baekeland papers to tackle a range of questions although, oddly enough, no authoritative biography has yet been published. Readers of this journal may be most familiar with Wiebe Bijker's 1995 study on the social construction of Bakelite, in which he makes extensive use of Flemish sources and the largely English-language Baekeland papers to support his theories of sociotechnical change.
Mercelis uses Baekeland's career to explore the intersections of science, technology, business, and intellectual property. He thus covers some of the same ground as Bijker and other scholars, while delving far more deeply into Baekeland as a well-documented case study in changing perceptions of the status and relationships of academic science, chemical industry, and entrepreneurialism between about 1890 and 1930. The author emphasizes Baekeland's university background and the significance of his academic connections, not only in his early efforts, but also after he moved to the United States and emerged as a successful entrepreneur. A great strength of this work is Mercelis's comfort in talking about both European and American academic settings—primarily Belgian institutions and Columbia University, respectively. The interplay between Baekeland's early university-based work and his first commercial efforts turns out to be a bit complex, and the details bog down the discussion at points. One justification might be that these details point towards one of the key inflections of [End Page 254] Baekeland's life—his move to the United States shortly after his marriage in 1889.
Throughout Beyond Bakelite, Mercelis is at great pains to explore the entanglements of academic norms and standards, commercial opportunities and demands, and shifting concepts of status and authority. Later portions of the book examine Baekeland's efforts to reconstruct academic linkages in America as well as his extended work on intellectual property issues and government advising. These explorations are very well informed by references to historical discussions on these topics and closely related subjects. Indeed, students of the history of technology would be well served using this work as entry to the literature on science-technology relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All of this comes at a price, however, since the book hews very closely to the texts from which it draws, so its narrative flow is somewhat sluggish. Some judicious editing could have reduced the number and length of quotations from sources. The analytical strengths of the work also get in the way of providing a very convincing portrait of Leo Baekeland. He was obviously driven by ambitions and anxieties about status, but other facets of his character are much more obscure, and the eccentricities of his later years are left out entirely. While this work...