The Collectable Retro Plastic that Thomas Edison Loved

Let’s play a game! Name this famous material:

  • Thomas Edison used this material in his early disc records
  • Early telephones were made of this durable material
  • Some of the first printed circuit boards used this fascinating material as a base
  • Even dice, billiard balls and dominoes were once made from this materila
  • Many homes had colorful table radios made of this dating back to the 1940s
  • In the 1950s & 60s, teenagers sported small transistorized pocket radios made of this material
  • Women’s jewelry was another popular application for this widely used material
Vintage 1940s Crosley Bakelite Radio worth thousands of dollars on E-Bay today

Have you guessed it yet? It’s Bakelite…The first true plastic, which was able to retain its original shape after being heated. It was also an excellent electric insulator and heat resistant. The inventor of this material was Belgian-American chemist, Leo Baekeland who created it in Yonkers, New York, in 1909. Baekeland discovered Bakelite in his search for a synthetic substitute for shellac.

Leo and Thomas Edison both served on the Naval Consulting Board, a US Navy organization established in 1915 by Josephus Daniels at the suggestion of Edison. The board consisted of engineers and scientists from around the country. Baekeland was one of the two representatives of the American Chemical Society as Edison led team in the charge to coming up with defense solutions.

The Naval Consulting Board at their first meeting, 1915. National Park Service photo

Around that same time, Edison’s Diamond Disc records were being created using a similar chemical called Condensite. A gifted chemist, Jonas Aylsworth, worked at the Edison West Orange labs these testing materials for phonograph recording. Aylsworth patented Condensite, a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde, for use in Edison Diamond Disc records. 

Thomas Edison’s diamond discs made with Condensite, a similar material to Bakelite

Edison’s youngest son, Theodore, an inventor in his own right who would eventually amass 70+ patents and create his own company, also had fascinating interaction with Bakelite. In 1933, he published a Bakelite puzzle named “Calibron Twelve Block Puzzle”, also known as the “Calibron 12.” This very difficult brain teaser was used in a marketing effort to spread the name of his business, Calibron!

Rare Calibron 12 Block Puzzle made by Theodore Edison as a marketing stunt

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