Discovery of Plastic and the Billiard Story

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The 19th Century was the age of innovation, discovery and development for the Human. The drastic shift from spirituality to reality and facts was the great advancement in the 19th century. The major invention was Plastic.

There was one such thing as plastic which had not been discovered in a stable form yet. Plastic is a material consisting of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that are malleable and can be molded into solid object. It is typically organic polymer of high molecular mass in combination with other substances.

The world’s first fully synthetic plastic was Bakelite, invented in New York in 1907 by Leo Baekeland. There is story behind the discovery of this material on how it all started. Let me describe to you very briefly.

There was an age of billiards, and it existed even before the 19th century. It was one of the most popular amusement s of that time. A hundred years ago, there were 830 pool halls in the city of Chicago. Today there are TEN.

The man named Michael Phelan is the father of American Billiards. He was a brilliant player, and he also promoted the sport, arranging the biggest big-money. He invested in a huge billiard hall in San Francesco.

Phelan’s view was that to further popularize the game of billiards; he would need to standardize the gear. If tables and balls weren’t the same from one location to another, then you would be playing a different game every time you went somewhere new.

Then he patented a new kind billiard cushion and from that money he became the first big manufacturer of billiard tables and equipment.

billiard table

But the standardization of the billiard balls was no easy task. The balls has to have certain physical properties: rebound and be stiff (Uniform Density) at the same time. And , at the time, there was really only one material that would do: IVORY.

ivory

IVORY was not cheap – Going to Africa, shooting down elephants, extracting and processing their tusks and shipping them all across an ocean was dangerous, expensive and illegal.

People started looking for viable replacement for IVORY. They tried a variety of material, like wood and iron, but did not perform as per requirement. The ivory had just right weight and character to do so. The records from back then tells that the best grade of ivory where referred to as “billiard ball ivory”.

Average number of the billiard balls that could be obtained from a single tusk was 3.

Phelan took out an ad in the paper, offering $10,000 to anyone who could come up with a suitable replacement for ivory. In terms of wages people earned at the time, that was like three million dollars.

John Wesley Hyatt found the ad, Hyatt was a printer, not a scientist. But in his work he used a number of different chemicals, including nitrated cellulose

In particular, when dissolved, it created a kind of syrupy liquid. He tried making a film out of it, and then putting it through a press. In doing this, he created the first plastic. He called it “celluloid.”

But Hyatt did not win Phelan’s prize. Celluloid turned out to be useful for a number of things, but it was not right for billiard balls. The balls just didn’t bounce right.

Hyatt tried to make a go of it anyway, setting up his own billiard ball company, making balls with a thin veneer of celluloid over a layer of plaster on the inside. But they were considered very inferior billiard balls.

Still, Hyatt didn’t give up on celluloid. He went into business with his brother Isaiah, setting up companies to try to find new uses for the material.

Eventually they find that the best use for celluloid is imitation ivory. Albeit, not for billiard balls, but for versions of popular ivory luxury goods, such as knife handles, combs, and hand mirrors. And of course, celluloid would eventually be used to make film for movies.

Celluloid hadn’t worked for billiard balls, but it did inspire others to make other types of plastics. One of them was Leo Baekeland, who, in 1907, came up with a new kind of petroleum-based plastic. He named it Bakelite, after himself. And Bakelite plastic was perfect for billiard balls.

This is how all started for Plastics.