Thursday, March 18, 2010

Joris Mercelis on Baekeland and Bakelite

Posted by Darin Hayton on 03/18 at 08:48 AM

The most recent Brown Bag Lecture at the Chemical Heritage Foundation again asked questions about the history of science and business history (see the review of Cozzoli’s lecture on antihistamines): Joris Mercelis on Baekeland and Bakelite. In stark contrast to the methodology employed in the previous lecture, Mercelis told a detailed story that followed Baekeland to Berlin, then across the Atlantic to New York, and back again. Along the way Mercelis grounded Baekeland’s business decisions in his preferences for national scientific practices. More broadly, Mercelis tried to suggest that the standard story about the development of plastics in the U.S. needs to be refined because that story does not acknowledge the strong German influence on both the technical and business aspects of the industry.

Joris Mercelis speaking on the development of Bakelite in Germany and the U.S.

Mercelis outlined a couple broad goals for his talk:

  • To address relation between institutions entrepreneurship and innovation.
  • To contribute to study of international technology transfers.

Mercelis traced the early, “German phase” of the Bakelite industry from it’s development in 1909 to 1917. When Baekeland introduced his bakelite he was aware of the commercial uses, especially as a competitor to celluloid, but Baekeland concentrated on the industrial uses. In fact, Baekeland downplayed bakelite’s commercial and consumer uses in favor of its industrial applications. This preference for industrial applications was related to his decision to develop his industry in Berlin, where there were various industries that would benefit from bakelite. Further, Baekeland’s preference for the German chemical industry and German-based sciences in general was reinforced by the legal structures, especially patent laws, that could protect his invention. The close connection between these motivations is revealed in one of Baekeland’s statements: “In selecting business associates for my new industry I took less in consideration any money they were willing to contribute than their personal qualities and business experience.” Baekeland wanted an industry that privileged scientists and engineers at all levels.

When Bakelite expanded into the U.S. context and, in the process, imported a number of German practices, both industrial and business practices. Comparing Roessler & Hasslacher (the parent company of Bakelite) to Du Pont, Mercelis points to the more prevalent use of chemists and engineers at all levels of the Bakelite concern: Bakelite employed sales engineers rather than salesmen; scientists and engineers were managers; many of the decisions and practices were interpreted through technical lenses. This early period is characterized by a focus on industrial uses for Bakelite. Only after 1917 did Bakelite expand into the consumer market. At this time Bakelite began working with industrial engineers to design consumer goods

Mercelis tried to show how the development of the plastics industry in the U.S. was built on the German model. Further, that this particular case study highlights the ways that technology and science are transferred across national borders.

The Q&A period allowed Mercelis to clarify some points and to extend his talk in interesting ways. A number of people asked about Baekeland’s relationship to international patent law. Mercelis couldn’t point to specific points of influence, but given Baekeland’s contacts and influence with scientists and legislators, it seems a fruitful set of questions. Another set of questions asked about Baekeland’s preference for Berlin as a function of his aesthetic. Mercelis did not want to attribute Baekeland’s choice to an aesthetic. Instead, he retreated into an internalist explanation: Baekeland avoided aesthetics because it would have diluted his focus, and he had watched companies fail when they developed a range of products governed by aesthetic choices. Other people asked specific questions about how Bakelite compared to other chemical companies (besides Du Pont), pointing out that narrow comparisons to Du Pont or to other, non-technical industries perhaps hide interesting similarities. Finally, a few questions asked whether the German influence was a form of internal rhetoric or external rhetoric. Mercelis suggested that it was both, internal and external rhetoric.

In the end, Mercelis’s talk was both well presented and informative. At the same time, the Q&A raised some fruitful avenues of research that Mercelis should consider. As a dilettante in this area I may not be the best litmus test for my conclusions, but I confess that I was not entirely convinced by Mercelis’s dismissal of aesthetics or his quick use of the Baekeland quotation about “personal qualities and business experience” that justified his decision to develop his industry in Berlin.

On the way out of the talk, I couldn’t resist wandering through the CHF gallery to look at the Bakelite display. Clearly, the “German” style of Baekeland’s business practices are absent from this display, as are his interests in industrial and technological applications for Bakelite. Along with the reconstructed Bakelite oven are a number of fine Bakelite products: a telephone, a radio, buttons, etc. The point of the display is highlighted in its title: “Materials for the Masses. The Bakelite Breakthrough. This Material of a Thousand Uses.”

The Bakelite display in the CHF

However much Baekeland had wanted to focus on the industrial applications, clearly Bakelite is remembered most for its consumer plastic products. And it is that history—the aesthetic and consumer history—that earns Bakelite a spot in the CHF gallery.

Tags: bakelite, chemical heritage foundation