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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Sale of Velox paved the way for 'the material of a thousand uses'

By Paul Niemann

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[May 22, 2008]  Take a look at some of the most revolutionary inventions in American history -- the telephone, mass-produced cars, vulcanized rubber, radio and television -- and try to imagine life without them. When they were created and first marketed to the masses, they were revolutionary; now they're taken for granted.

RestaurantEven the more recent breakthroughs such as personal computers, cell phones and the Internet are items that we cannot live without.

But there was a material developed in the summer of 1907 that could be considered as important as most of the above-mentioned products. Its inventor was a Belgian-born chemist named Leo, who lived in Yonkers, N.Y., with his wife and two children.

This revolutionary product wasn't the Velox mentioned in the headline of this story. Actually, I had never even heard of Velox before now. Leo crossed paths with another great inventor whose invention you could not live without.


His name was George. It was George who bought the rights to Velox to use in developing his invention in the 1890s. George paid Leo $1 million for the rights to Velox, which was a type of photographic paper that allowed photographers to develop film with artificial light instead of having to rely on sunlight. George wanted it for his photography business.

George was George Eastman, founder of Kodak. It's always interesting when famous people cross paths with other famous people, like when the inventor of Velox met the inventor of modern photography.

For example, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison knew each other. Samuel Morse's father was friends with Noah Webster (as in Webster's dictionary). Charles Lindbergh, who most people don't know was also an inventor, worked briefly for Henry Ford.

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Tom Baldwin, inventor of the modern parachute, knew the Wright brothers because he was in a race with them to develop the first airplane. And Joshua Lionel Cowan, the inventor of Lionel trains, was friends with Conrad Hubert, founder of the Eveready Battery Company.

But there's more to this story, and it has nothing to do with George Eastman or Kodak.

You see, Leo used the million dollars to develop a brand-new product -- actually it was a material rather than a product -- that most people cannot imagine living without.

You might not recognize the name of Leo Hendrik Baekeland, but you might recognize his invention of synthetic plastic by the brand name of Bakelite. It was his synthetic plastic, not his Velox, that was advertised as "the material of a thousand uses."

Baekeland provides another example of famous people crossing paths with other famous people: Leo Baekeland and his wife, Celine, bought the Florida house that formerly was owned by William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was the presidential candidate who lost to William Taft in the 1908 election.


Paul Niemann is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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