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 parlor. Thus the ivory billiard ball was born.
Specifically, at least in the High Renaissance, this necessitated the use of ivory from Kenyan elephants, with the earliest on record being a billiard set commissioned in 1588 by the Duke of Norfolk.
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. Those balls, unsurprisingly, were very expensive.
By the late 19th century, the whole business of ivory was being challenged. (And not a moment too soon, as nearly 50,000 elephants perished in what Joseph Conrad called “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”) Enterprising folks occasionally tried mixing things like alligator teeth and scrimshaw together to make cheaper billiard balls, but it was still difficult to hunt in high volume and turn a decent profit.
Adding to this need for newer, less-expensive balls, billiards had become increasing popular in the United States, where the game went from a frivolous parlor hobby to a mustachioed and bourbon-soaked gambling man’s game called “pool.” It was so popular, in fact, that during the Civil War, billiard stats received wider coverage than news about the boys out fighting. Michael Phelan, perhaps the most celebrated American player at the time, describes the game’s allure in his charmingly heavy-handed 1850 tell-all, Billiards Without a Master:
The elated hope, the depressing fear, the sanguine exultation, the mortifying defeat, the philosophical resignation to fate, the indifference of success, and the multiplied and manifold passions of the human mind, are variously depicted and easily discovered by an attentive observer, on the countenance of the Billiard player.
Rhapsodizing aside, Phelan was certainly in a position to know that the game needed a new material for its balls. He and a billiards supplier added incentive to the search for a suitable replacement by offering $10,000 (these days about $175,000) to the inventor who could come up with one. John Hyatt, a printer from Albany, saw the news in the paper, and set about attempting to win the prize. And like most things of this sort, Hyatt did so quite accidentally.
Printers in those days used an effective, if not quite dermatologist-approved, liquid solution of nitrocellulose and alcohol on their hands to prevent papers cuts. The solution would dry into an elastic, waterproof film that created a sort of protective glove. One lucky day, Hyatt spilled a bottle, and for some reason let it dry overnight, only to find the next morning that it had hardened into something of almost the exact density of ivory that he had so earnestly been trying to duplicate.
In short order, Hyatt started his own billiard company and patented a process he used to make balls: the mass of nitrocellulose would go into a rubber bag, then into a cylinder of hot liquid, compressing and heating it to a uniform sphere as the heat vaporized the solvents. 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, resulting in guns drawn and a brief moment of terror.
To Hyatt’s credit, he eventually fixed the problem by changing how he cast the ball. A prudent businessman, he renamed his process “the new and improved Hyatt method” and patented the new product as “celluloid.” Despite this invention (incidentally the first thermoplastic, and one particularly essential to a nascent film industry), Phelan and Collander never forked over the original cash prize. The material dropped out of favor anyway because, despite being the first thermoplastic, it wasn’t that cheap, fast, or easy to make.
Up next was Bakelite, which was discovered in 1909 by a Belgian-born New York chemist named Leo Hendrik Baekeland. A polymer of formaldehyde and phenol, Bakelite is highly heat-resistant (which is to say, mercifully unexplosive) and can be added to most materials to make them more durable. Bakelite can also be molded – in this regard, already better than celluloid and less expensive to make – and in particular, molds very quickly. This was an enormous advantage in mass production processes where many identical units were produced one after the other. Bakelite is a thermosetting resin, which is to say, once molded, it retains its shape even if heated. Brunswick, which is still the huge billiards company today that it was back then, started coming out with their own version of Bakelite balls (poor Leo’s patent expired in 1927), calling them things like “Ivorylene,” “The Centennial,” and “The Empire.” The company boasted that the balls were “Torture Tested!” by being dropped from three flights onto a steel plate.
Unfortunately, Bakelite’s drawback is color. Pure Bakelite resin is a lovely amber, and it can take on other colors as well. But the substance is also quite brittle and has to be strengthened by “filling” with other substances, usually cellulose in the form of sawdust. After filling, colors come out dull and muddy, and the bright colors used in billiards eventually fade.
Bakelite variants like Ivorylene disappeared completely by the 1960s, paving the way for the most recent (and surely not the last) round of plastic used to replace ivory – phenolic resin. This is essentially Bakelite, with minor tweaks in its formula to make it harder, smoother, and more colorful – the elusive trifecta! The flip-side is that a number of toxic air pollutants, including formaldehyde (a probable human carcinogen), phenol, methanol, xylene, and toluene, are released during the resin manufacturing process. Currently the EPA is researching the use of bio-oils in creating non-formaldehyde-based resins and thermoplastics, but the project is still ongoing.
With billiards, it seems easier to win the game than to build its components. Who knew such dangers lay in the corner pocket?