From billiard balls to celluloid

On June 15, 1869, John Wesley Hyatt, along with his brother Isaiah Hyatt, received a patent for celluloid, the first synthetic plastic. They had set out to make billiard balls, but had gone on to mark the beginning of the Age of Plastics. Sounds impossible? Read on to know the truth…

Updated - November 10, 2021 12:25 pm IST

Published - June 12, 2016 05:28 pm IST

What is the connection between Billiard balls and celluloid? Keep reading to find out...

What is the connection between Billiard balls and celluloid? Keep reading to find out...

There are many things that have been constant throughout the course of human history. Wars, for instance. Fighting for natural resources. Exploitation of Nature. And innovating and inventing to make up for what isn’t available abundantly in Nature.

In the second half of the 19th century, billiards grew in popularity. While that was good news for the sport, it also meant an increased demand for ivory that was used in making the billiard balls. Ivory came from elephants, a scarce natural resource, which meant that the pressure to find a suitable substitute was growing tremendously.

The New York billiards company offered a reward of $10,000 for anyone who came up with a satisfactory substitute for ivory in billiard balls. John Wesley Hyatt, who was already on the lookout for ivory substitutes while making playing pieces for dominoes and checkers, was inspired further on seeing this advertisement.

Years of experimentation followed before he eventually arrived at a suitable material: celluloid. Though the National Museum of American History does have a Hyatt Celluloid Billiard Ball, it seems Hyatt never did get the promised $10,000. What he did get, however, was the first synthetic plastic.

Hyatt and his brother Isaiah were aware of Alexander Parkes’ success in using nitrated cellulose to make a mouldable substance. They refined Parkes’ process to arrive at their method of making celluloid.

On treating nitrated cellulose derived from cotton with camphor and alcohol, Hyatt was able to produce a strong, light material - celluloid - that could then be moulded to have the look and feel of ivory, linen, tortoiseshell and other natural materials.

The Hyatt brothers patented their process and received the same on June 15, 1869. Their invention wasn’t ideal for billiard balls, for they not only made an explosive cracking sound on collision, but also at times caught fire when striking each other. The nitric acid used to produce nitrated cellulose was responsible for the flammability.

Hyatt’s celluloid, however, opened the floodgates with respect to making new, useful materials that were synthetic in nature but could mimic existing expensive natural materials. Celluloid products were churned out by manufacturers for wide ranging applications - collars, combs, films and dental plates to name a few.

These days, acetic acid is used in place of nitric acid to produce cellulose acetate, which is much more stable and hence has largely replaced celluloid. As for John Hyatt, he set up a number of companies and kept tinkering things, collecting over 200 patents through his lifetime.

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