Billiard balls might hold the key to weaning ourselves from petroleum-based plastics.
In the 1850’s when billiards was the game of choice among English and U.S. gentlemen, and the star of billiards was a man from New York named Michael Phelan. An excellent player, Phelan published the first book on the science, rules and etiquette of billiards. He was also the first large-scale manufacturer of pool tables, and helped popularize the game by standardizing equipment.
There was a problem though with materials to make billiard balls. Ivory was considered best because it could be shaped into nearly-perfect spheres that rebounded predictably and were uniformly dense. Ivory, however, was expensive. It yellowed with age and cracked under pressure. It was also disastrous for elephants. One tusk produced only about three billiard balls. Demand for pool balls, along with other luxury items like combs and piano keys, halved the African elephant population from 26 million to about 10 million during the 19th century.*
Phelan didn’t care about elephants, but he did care about ivory’s other drawbacks. So, in 1869 he offered $10,000 in gold — $3 million in today’s dollars — to anyone who came up with a material that worked as well.
At about this same time, Alexander Parkes of Birmingham, England, patented a moldable material made out of cellulose and nitric acid. He hoped to sell “Parkesine” as waterproofing for clothing, but he ran out of money before he could get it to market.
Parkes’ invention caught the attention of John Wesley Hyatt, a printer and inventor who had his eye on Phelan’s $10,000 gold prize.
Hyatt experimented with nitrocellulose (a version of Parkesine) for five years and eventually came up with a combination of nitrocellulose, camphor and alcohol, which could be molded into passable billiard balls. He called the new material “celluloid.” It was, arguably, the first plastic of the modern age.**
Nitrocellulose balls were not very durable, and they tended to blow up. In the end, Hyatt never collected his prize.
He and his brother, however, found several other uses for celluloid: piano keys, denture parts, faux ivory knife handles and combs. For awhile, celluloid was used to make films. Several silent movies which used cellulose as a film base were lost to fires and decomposition.
Finally Wyatt made it big with celluloid corsets (sweat didn’t rust them) and “dickeys,” stiff false shirt-fronts that didn’t wilt and were stain-resistant.
There still remained the problem with the pool balls.
Inspired by Wyatt, chemist Leo Baekeland used some of the same techniques and materials and discovered a petroleum-based material which was less flammable, could be liquefied during production allowing the addition of fillers, and molded into balls of uniform density. Billiard ball makers were delighted.
“Bakelite” not only revolutionized the manufacture of pool balls and brought elephants some relief from hunters, it was also heat-resistant, didn’t conduct electricity and was cheap to produce. It was quickly adopted for bakeware, insulation and telephone casings. The first issue of Plastics magazine in 1922 featured Bakelite on its cover.
Soon dozens products made from bakelite were flooding the markets, and not long after that, dozens of other kinds of plastics were available.
The story doesn’t end there, of course. Research hasn’t stopped. Hundreds of new polymers have been invented. There are plastics made from plants, plastics which decompose organically, and/or can be easily reused and recycled. Researchers are trying to figure out how to recapture and neutralize plastics that damage health and the environment, as well as how to use less plastic, and how to use it better.
Will we get there? Of course we will. Soon enough to save beaches, oceans, turtles, and protect our own health? That’s the question. Plastic manufacturers are planning for explosive growth. How do we make sure the plastics we use are plastics we can live with?
First, recognize we’re at least halfway there. Progress is happening every day. More about that in future posts.
In the meantime, notice how you use plastic. Can you use less? Can you support manufacturers who use less, and use recyclable plastics? Are you taking advantage of plastics recycling available at, say, your local grocery store?
Finally, maybe it’s time for another contest with generous prizes in gold. How about a prize for best recapture of plastic from the ocean? Or a better baggy?
*There are about 400,000 elephants left in the world today
**Wyatt was sued by Englishman Daniel Spill, who patented more or less the same material first (his was called Xylonite). After years of wrangling, it was determined Spill was the true inventor, but the court allowed Wyatt to continue to manufacture and profit from celluloid.