The history and arguments behind who and how plastic was invented are many and diverse, but one of the discussions that is widely accepted as fact was the necessity to create a better billiard ball.
The earliest balls were made of wood and then later clay. Ivory was also desired since at least 1627, but began to grow out of favor due to poaching laws and cost. The billiard industry realized that the supply of elephants (their primary source of ivory) was endangered, as well as becoming dangerous to obtain. Inventors were challenged to come up with an alternative material that could be manufactured, with a US$10,000 prize being offered to the winner by a New York billiard ball supplier.
In the 1850’s, Alexander Parkes began experimenting with nitrocellulose, and little did he know that his product would revolutionize manufacturing throughout the world. Parkes was both an inventor and metallurgist, and he unveiled his creation at the World’s Fair in London in 1862. For his efforts he was awarded a bronze medal at the fair. Although Parkes would die in 1890 before the finalization of his processes and efforts could be realized, Parkes can rightly be called the inventor of plastic.
It was not until later, when John Wesley Hyatt began experimenting with cellulose nitrate that this new plastic would achieve a level of commercial success. Looking for a way to create imitation billiard balls, Hyatt added the material component camphor to nitrocellulose in order to make it hard enough for his purposes. It worked and was the final piece of the equation needed.
The early billiard balls that stood the test of this new technology were made of a plastic process and material known as bakelite. Bakelite took the celluloid process a step further by creating a polymer that was completely synthetic. Early cellulose or ‘plastic’ was highly flammable because of its natural components, and limited in application to such things as early film making.
In fact, it was noted in early sources that a ‘hard break’ of the celluloid billiard balls would actually cause them to explode from the heat, pressure and force of the ball and impact.
As we came forward in the 20th century, new plastics were being invented at a rapid rate. Currently Saluc, under the brand names Aramith and Brunswick Centennial, manufactures phenolic resin balls. Other plastics and resins such as polyester (under various trade names) and clear acrylic are also used by competing companies such as Elephant Balls Ltd. and Frenzy Sports.
Many think of billiards or pocket pool as only for the wealthy, or as a niche sport that had a small following in history. That misnomer however has been negated by the history of how a simple competition to build a better billiard ball took on vastly larger import, and from that challenge came the invention of plastic which has revolutionized the world.