Museum of Design in Plastics

A truly explosive history…

Who’d have thought a game of pool could be so dangerous.

When billiards evolved from croquet in the 15th century as a posh indoor game for stuffy European royals, the rough-hued wood and clay of the outdoor version needed to be appropriately refashioned for the delicacies of the parlour. Thus the ivory billiard ball was born. A single tusk produced just three to four billiard balls, with one likely rejected due to weight and size imperfections. The balls had to age for two to three years to stabilize, so they wouldn’t crack or distort when played. The ivory was hard to come by, and the balls took a lot of time and expertise to manufacture correctly. The balls, unsurprisingly, were very expensive.

By the late 19th century, thankfully the whole business of ivory was being challenged and added to this was the need for newer, less-expensive balls. At the time a billiard manufacturer offered an incentive of $10,000 to the inventor who could come up with a replacement ball. John Hyatt, a printer from Albany saw the news in the paper and set about attempting to win the prize.

He came across the solution quite by chance when he accidentally spilled a bottle of liquid nitrocellulose and alcohol that he was using to protect his hands from paper cuts. For some reason he left it on the floor overnight and woke to find that it had hardened into something of almost the exact density of ivory. Hyatt started his own billiard company and patented the process he used to make the balls. Unfortunately for saloon owners and pool sharks across America, Hyatt’s material turned out to be essentially gunpowder; so one tough tap of a cue ball might cause it to explode.  He did to his credit eventually fix the problem by changing how he cast the ball, renamed his process and patented the new product as “celluloid”. The cash prize was never handed over and the material dropped out of favour when a new, highly heat resistant and mercifully unexplosive, material Bakelite was invented by Belgian born New York chemist named Leo Hendrik Baekeland. Bakerlite however had some drawbacks in that it doesn’t take colour well, is brittle and fades over time.

Billiard balls are now made of a phenolic resin a tweaked version of Bakerlite that is harder, smoother and more colourful when dyed. Currently research is being undertaken into the use of bio-oils to create non-formaldehyde-based resins and thermoplastics.


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