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The Unlikely Story of How Billiards Changed the History of Plastics

Posted on 9th December 2015

Billiards was an after-dinner sport enjoyed by the wealthy classes in the Nineteenth Century. It was played on a 12ft by 6ft table with expensive polished hardwood cues and balls made from ivory. With the emergence of snooker and pool, the popularity of cue sports grew amongst the middle and working classes. In America in particular, pool became an immensely popular sport and pool halls opened in every town and city across a rapidly expanding nation.


The Ivory Problem


Balls fashioned from weighted wood and clay were used on cheaper tables, but ivory remained the gold standard in pool and billiard balls. Ivory could be polished smooth and didn't chip or crack through use, unlike the cheaper alternatives. The only problem was the limited supply. An elephant's tusk could produce only eight billiard balls. You could hunt every elephant in Africa (ideas about conservation and animal rights were still in their infancy) and still not have enough balls to meet the growing demand.


Billiards Plastic

A Prize is Offered


In the 1860s, billiard ball suppliers Phelan and Collender offered a prize of $10,000 to anybody who could come up with a substance that would rival ivory for billiard ball production. John Wesley Hyatt rose to the challenge and in 1869 he invented nitrocellulose, later patented as Celluloid, the first industrial plastic. Celluloid was not a perfect solution. It wasn't easy to manufacture, as slight variances in temperature during the production process could cause it to become volatile. Rumours abounded that these new plastic billiard balls would explode if they were struck too hard. Eventually Celluloid was superseded by other hard plastics such as Bakelite that were safer to produce.


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