Leo Baekeland and the Business of Science and Invention
The changing relationships between science and industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, illustrated by the career of the “father of plastics.”
The Belgian-born American chemist, inventor, and entrepreneur Leo Baekeland (1863–1944) is best known for his invention of the first synthetic plastic—his near-namesake Bakelite—which had applications ranging from electrical insulators to Art Deco jewelry. Toward the end of his career, Baekeland was called the “father of plastics”—given credit for the establishment of a sector to which many other researchers, inventors, and firms inside and outside the United States had also made significant contributions. In Beyond Bakelite, Joris Mercelis examines Baekeland's career, using it as a lens through which to view the changing relationships between science and industry on both sides of the Atlantic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He gives special attention to the intellectual property strategies and scientific entrepreneurship of the period, making clear their relevance to contemporary concerns.
Mercelis describes the growth of what he terms the “science-industry nexus” and the developing interdependence of science and industry. After examining Baekeland's emergence as a pragmatic innovator and leader in scientific circles, Mercelis analyzes Baekeland's international and domestic IP strategies and his efforts to reform the US patent system; his dual roles as scientist and industrialist; the importance of theoretical knowledge to the science-industry nexus; and the American Bakelite companies' research and development practices, technically oriented sales approach, and remuneration schemes. Mercelis argues that the expansion and transformation of the science-industry nexus shaped the careers and legacies of Baekeland and many of his contemporaries.
Leo Baekeland is well-known in the history of technology as the 'father of plastics,' yet Joris Mercelis shows that much of what we know is wrong. That's partly because Baekeland was an inveterate prevaricator. But it's also because Baekeland crossed the Atlantic Ocean and boundaries between science and industry in ways that Mercelis skillfully traces.
Cyrus C. M. Mody, Professor in the History of Science, Technology, and Innovation, Maastricht University
Beyond Bakelite is an exciting addition to the new patent history, expanding the courtroom focus of other works on the subject with detailed examples of an iconic inventor using patents to nurture his businesses and an academic reputation while building science-intensive companies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Kara W. Swanson, Professor of Law and Affiliate Professor of History, Northeastern University
Mercelis effectively uses biography to revise the existing narrative of Baekeland as a heroic inventor by revealing the professional struggles, historical contingencies, and outside influences that contributed to the chemist's success. He subjects his sources to an admirable level of criticality, cross-referencing letters and journal entries against published papers, patent applications, and legal testimonies. Most important, the trajectory of Baekeland's career reveals a more entangled relationship between science, technology, and industry than scholars have shown previously.
Robert Gordon-Fogelson, University of Southern California, H-Net Reviews
Mercelis uses Baekeland's career to explore the intersections of science, technology, business, and intellectual property. [... ] [S]tudents 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.
Technology and Culture