Plastic objects made from phenol formaldehyde, 1920-1939.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
A group of plastic objects made from different variations of phenol formaldehyde. The initial uses of phenolic resins were for varnishes and laminates used as electrical insulators. The first synthetic thermosetting plastic was patented in 1909 by Leo Baekeland (1863-1944), a Belgian-born chemist who emigrated to the United States in 1889. When combined with a wood flour filler, phenol formaldehyde, known by its trade name 'Bakelite', after its inventor, forms a useful mouldable plastic, with very good electrical insulating properties. Numerous other phenolic resins with different characteristics have subsequently been developed, including a cast phenolic known as Catalin (artificial amber), of which several of these objects are made.