This material was once the wonder of the world. Leo Baekeland was already wealthy, due to his invention of Velox photographic paper, when he began to investigate the reactions of phenol and formaldehyde in his home laboratory. Chemists had begun to recognize that many natural resins and fibres were polymers. Baekeland's initial intent was to find a replacement for shellac, a material that was in limited supply because it was made naturally from the excretion of lac insects. Baekeland produced a soluble phenol-formaldehyde shellac called "Novolak", but it was not a market success. Baekeland then began trying to strengthen wood by impregnating it with a synthetic resin, rather than coating it. By controlling the pressure and temperature applied to phenol and formaldehyde, Baekeland produced a hard moldable material which he named "Bakelite". The first synthetic thermosetting plastic ever made, Baekeland speculated on "the thousand and one... articles" that it could be used to make. Baekeland considered the possibilities of using a wide variety of filling materials, including cotton, powdered bronze, and slate dust, but was most successful with wood and asbestos fibers.
The earliest commercial use of Bakelite in the electrical industry was the molding of tiny insulating bushings the size of mustard seeds, made in 1908 for the Weston Electrical Instrument Corporation by Richard W. Seabury of the Boonton Rubber Company. Bakelite was soon used for non-conducting parts of telephones, radios and other electrical devices, including bases and sockets for light bulbs and electron tubes, supports for any type of electrical components, automobile distributor caps and other insulators. By 1912, it was being used to make billiard balls, since its elasticity and the sound it made were similar to ivory. Bakelite's availability and ease and speed of molding helped to lower the costs of production and increase product availability so that both telephones and radios became common household consumer goods. It was also very important to the developing automobile industry. It was soon found in myriad other consumer products ranging from pipe stems and buttons to saxophone mouthpieces, cameras, early machine guns, and appliance casings. Beginning in the 1920s it became a popular material for jewelry. Designer Coco Chanel included Bakelite bracelets in her costume jewelry collections. By the late 1940s, newer materials were superseding Bakelite in many areas. Phenolics are less frequently used in general consumer products today due to their cost and complexity of production and their brittle nature.
The Bakelite Museum in Williton is tucked away in a historic watermill (the waterwheel is not made of bakelite) and is home to the largest collection of vintage plastics in Britain. You’ll find just about everything you can think of here, from radios, cameras and telephones to a Bakelite coffin! The exhibits begin with Victorian plastics and take you through the stylish Art Deco period to war time and beyond. The objects are arranged around the cogs, pulleys and flour sacks of an earlier industrial age - a museum within a museum. 18th-19thC industry and ingenuity meet 20thC industry and invention. There is also a collection of rural machinery from our pre-industrial past, to contrast with the bright new plastics of the modern machine age. Assistance dogs are welcome. There are some steps but a ramp can be provided. Off the beaten track, the museum is well worth the journey.
Location : Orchard Mill, Williton, Somerset TA4 4NS
Transport: Williton (West Somerset Rail) 20 minutes. Bus Routes : 15, 18, 23B and 28 stop 7 minutes away.
Opening Times : Daily 10:30 - 17:00
Tickets : Adults £5.00; Children (6+) £3.00
Tel: 01984 632133