From original sources, including 62 of Baekeland’s personal handwritten diaries, the film explores his life, his scientific genius and his creative entrepreneurship, all in intimate detail. His story comes alive through accurate historical re-enactments, rare archival footage, photos, first-person accounts, interviews with scientists, historians, and artists and clever musical performances that capture both the wonder and the curse of Baekeland’s alchemy.
Maher makes history come alive as he weaves interviews with Hugh Karraker and other family members with beautifully realized period re-enactments of Baekeland—seen as a curious boy growing up in Ghent, Belgium, then as a persistent chemist and inventor in New York, and later as an old man reflecting on the toll that running the business of the Bakelite Corporation had taken on his life. Archival footage, intimate family photos, and first-person accounts transport us back to the dawn of the modern age when individuals like Baekeland, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and others led a revolution of innovation with their inventions.
The film presents perspectives from an ensemble of accomplished scientists, historians, artists and musicians, whose occupations are neatly wrapped in plastic. These experts reveal how nothing humans have created is quite like Bakelite in its versatility and varied applications. From hard-core industrial uses to fine art creations, Bakelite is found everywhere from distributor caps to collectible jewelry.
The primary source and inspiration for this illuminating film is one of the great grandsons of Baekeland himself, Hugh Karraker, who was kind enough to give us an interview.
Interview with Hugh Karraker
Bakelite® is often called the material of a thousand possibilities. Apart from your family relationship with Leo H. Baekeland, what fascinates you personally about this material?
I believe, with slight variations the components and the process for making the material hasn’t changed in over 100 years. I’m impressed that its many forms include paint, glue, foam and can be used to replace human bone. More commonly it is used for caps and closures and for aerospace, electrical and automobile parts.
Bakelite® was a game changer: for industrial design, in mass consumption, replacing natural materials and making life easier and safer.
I am impressed by the sound of Bakelite®. Castanets, pool balls and Mahjong tiles all resonate with a particular sound that is unmistakable.
What was the new thing you learned about Bakelite® or Leo H. Baekeland during the ten years of research?
Besides its use for bone reconstruction, I learned people under the age of 50 who are not in the plastics or chemical fields don’t know what Bakelite® is or who invented it. With my film, All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic, I intend to change that.
I learned that “Doc” Baekeland had a strong concern for the safety and well being of his employees. Also, I learned that later in life he wished he could have explored biochemistry.
During my research, a side story about Baekeland emerged: In 1910, he chose Lawrence “Larry” Byck, a student from a Yonkers, New York High School, who had a strong aptitude for Chemistry to apprentice with him in his laboratory. Leo helped Larry enter and complete a degree in Chemistry at Columbia U. He also inspired Larry to take up photography and botany. Larry was with the Bakelite Corp. for over 40 years. During the early 1920’s, while at Bakelite, Larry established a jewelry business at the Corp. called Embed Art. The business was dissolved after several years.
You show All Things Bakelite at symposia around the world. What is the reaction of the audience to your film and will there be a sequel in the future?
My film has been sought after and appreciated by people in libraries, museums, schools and colleges. It continues to be shown at Chemical and Plastics industry meetings and symposia around the world. The DVD is selling on our website: allthingsbakelite.com. This year, American public television stations have aired the film; with repeat airdates.
We don’t have plans for a sequel at the moment. But expanding the film to feature length could be a possibility.