When you play a game of billiards, you’re usually hoping to hear the satisfying clack of the balls. You’re probably not hoping to hear a sound like gunfire as your cue ball connects with the eight ball. But if you got your hands on some of the earliest plastic billiard balls, that was a chance you took.
Billiards photo by Leo Hidalgo (CC BY 2.0).
British inventor Alan Parkes is credited with developing the fist human-made plastic, patented in 1862 and marketed under the name Parkesine. In those early days of plastic development, many inventors were attempting to solve the so-called “ivory problem.” There was a common, although erroneous, belief that ivory was in short supply, and Parkes was one of the materials scientists who believed his plastic might come to replace ivory. He envisioned Parkesine appearing in all sorts of luxury goods, including combs, pens, card cases, buttons, and knife handles. It’s no surprise that an early successor to Parkesine, a whiter nitrocellulose plastic, was sold under the name Ivoride.
One ivory item that was in particularly high demand was the billiard ball. Wiebe E. Bijker’s book, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, notes that billiards was an extremely popular indoor sport at the time and that concerns over a possible billiard ball shortage led billiards manufacturers Phelan and Collender to offer a $10,000 award to anyone who could develop an ivory substitute that could be used in billiard balls. Supposedly, that announcement lit a fire under John Wesley Hyatt, who would eventually develop celluloid, the first widely manufactured plastic.
Celluloid and its predecessors were all made with nitrocellulose, also known as pyroxylin, flash paper, and gun cotton. As you might guess from that string of names, these plastics were highly flammable, and when used in billiard balls, they had some, well, interesting results. Some of Hyatt’s billiard ball experiments involved forming balls and then coating them with collodion, a solution of pyroxylin in ether and alcohol. He recalled the side effect in 1914:
In order to secure strength and beauty, only coloring pigments were added, and in the least quantity; consequently a lighted cigar applied would at once result in a serious flame, and occasionally the violent contact of the balls would produce a mild explosion like a percussion guncap. We had a letter from a billiard saloon proprietor in Colorado, mentioning this face and saying he did not care so much about it, but that instantly every man in the room pulled his gun.
The noise the billiard balls produced was hardly dangerous, but celluloid products did pose a hazard to their owners. Celluloid combs, buttons, and even dentures would catch fire, turning the ivory substitute into a potentially deadly accessory.