Retrotechtacular: Bakelite Plastics


[ColdTurkey] sent in a really great video for this week’s Retrotechtacular. It’s a half-hour promo reel about Bakelite Plastic. There is so much to enjoy about this film, but we’ve been overlooking it because the first six minutes or so consist of an uncomfortably fake interview between a “Chemist” and “Reporter”. They are standing so close to each other that it’s violating our personal space. But endure or skip ahead and the rest of the video is gold.

Bakelite is an early plastic, and putting yourself in the time period it’s very easy to see the miracle of these materials. The dentures being molded above are made out of phenol formaldehyde resin (to us that sounds like something you don’t stick in your mouth but what do we know?). The plastic pellets take on the shape of the mold when heated — we don’t know if this where the name comes from or if it’s a variation on the name of the chemist who discovered the material: [Dr. Leo Baekeland]. This was the first synthetic plastic, and came at just the right time as it was heavily adopted for use in the electronics and the automotive industry. Both of which were forging new ground at the time.

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

46 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Bakelite Plastics

  1. It didnt look like they were standing that close. I had a guidance counselor in high school that would get so close that you could almost touch noses. She was what Seinfeld would call a close talker.

      1. Too late, I already did! I hated using this stuff. But I’ve worked it into shape many times. I just hope the stuff I was using, didn’t have any of the harmful stuff in it. Yikes!

    1. Don’t see why you react to that? Bakelite is used as a composite material and need some type of fibers to be strong enough to be usable. Mineral fiber, glass fiber, asbestos fiber, cotton fiber and even sawdust have been used.

      1. Megol has it right- just like fiberglass and most other composites, the resin itself doesn’t have a great deal of mechanical strength. Adding an appropriate fiber can create a lot of durable things.

        Phenolic resin is still in use today: hardboard/pegboard/marine grade plywood/engineered beams/ & cetera. A decent-sized plant can easily produce half a million pounds a day of p/f glue.

  2. Oh that is fantastic. Bakelite is one of those materials that is firmly of its time (ignoring some of its modern uses). The look and feel of bakelite instantly sets the time in your head, and there is nothing quite like it.

    One of my prized objects is a Stereo Realist 3D camera complete with its fold down bakelite lens cover…

  3. Did people back then watch these videos? Were they broadcast on TV? If so people back then must have had a lot more extra knowledge than we do today. Everyone today is trying to abstract the hard concepts away from the users. Whereas this video is explaining processes to them.

    1. As a rule movies (on film!) like this one wouldn’t be broadcast on TV. They would be shown at industry events, trade shows, and schools.

      There were some movies like this that would be shown on TV, either made of the purpose or edited down from these kinds of movies. I personally remember some episodes of Mr Rogers that showed film segments of how things are made. Likewise I remember some episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney that had educational film segments — though those were generally made by Disney for use on the air.

        1. That was just me being pedantic, but I am glad you took it the way it was intended. I have a suspicion the word (and distinction between) “film” is going to fade away very quickly.

          I live near a middle school and a high school, and being an adult I am therefore invisible to them, so I often overhear the them in their natural environment. I have started hearing kids say “lets go see a video” when they are referring to going to the theater. I have even heard the phase “video theater”.

          It is far from common, but it is starting to happen. Give it a generation and the word Film may be just the be in the vocabulary of parents, pedants, and classic movie buffs…

          1. I see your point, but in reality the new movie projectors are digital. No film involved. But I still catch myself talking about video taping an event with my phone.

        1. I’m right in thinking that’s just a load of company information films with a (boring and very stupid) narration stuck over, right? It can be hypnotic, and even interesting, *sometimes*, but who TF accepted the proposal for a show like that?

        2. Oh indeed, and there were shows that talked about how things were made. “You Asked For It!” often did that. Then there was “The Wonderful World of Disney” I mentioned before, and others.

          However if you look at the writing and tenor of the Bakelite movie it isn’t of the kind you would expect to see on the aforementioned shows (I watched a lot of classic — ie old —TV as a kid). It is totally in keeping with the kind of corporate event movies that were show at that time, and sometimes sent to Schools to promote industry.

          So while it could have been shown on TV, I very much doubt it was.

    1. I don’t know about the resins but I wouldn’t worry so much about the lead molds. It’s solid metallic lead not lead salt compounds. I doubt it’s getting into their bloodstream just by touching it. It’s not like they are drinking acidic drinks out of it as the Romans did.

  4. I have a lovely bush dac90a case in a swirly brown bakelite thats 70-80% through a raspi conversion. There’s a company called greygate, their no.6 polish was designed for the post office to polish bakelite.

    Great stuff if you want to clean up some old bakelite.

      1. If you have ever worked on vintage electronics you would understand the need for large soldering irons. Prior to the advent of printed circuits every TV and radio chassis came in the form of a hand wired steel box, and the steel chassis was used for shielding as well as the return for electrical grounds and they used to solder wires and component leads directly to the steel. Some of those chassis were made out of a heave gauge of sheet metal and were quite large, so you would need a 150-200 watt soldering iron just to heat the steel up enough to melt the solder, that or use a torch.

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