The History of Celluloid


Celluloid consist of Cellulose fibers from cotton treated with certain acids under certain conditions, the resulting product being mixed with camphor and other substance so as to make it elastic and capable of being molded in any form. It could be made opaque or transparent, polished, sawed, stamped, carved, turned and could be given almost any degree of hardness.

Cellulose fibers from cotton accounted for the development of plastics starting in the early 1800s. In 1832 Henri Braconnot (1780-1855), a French chemist created “Xyloidine” by mixing nitric acid with cotton. He attempted to make shaped articles, films and coatings. Then in 1846 Christian Friedrick Schonbein (1799-1868), a German chemist treated cotton with a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids and discovered cellulose nitrate. This compound became known as nitrocellulose or guncotton which was the principal element or ingredient of smokeless gunpowder.

In 1861 Alexander Parkes (1813-1890), a British metallurgist and inventor patented “Parkesine”, a plastic made by mixing nitrocellulose and wood naptha. However, Parkesine never reached potential due lack of funds. Parkes did receive awards for his effort and Parkesine is generally regarded as the birth of plastics. In 1866 Daniel Spill (1832-1887), a coworker of Alexander Parkes formed the Parkesine Company along with Parkes but it did not prosper and failed in 1868. In 1869 Daniel Spill formed the Xylonite Company and took over Alexander Parkes patents. Xylonite was a mixture of nitrocellulose, camphor and caster oil. Spill’s company did succeed in the plastics industry but not before a long legal battle with John Wesley Hyatt for infringement of his patents.

Braconnot Schonbein Parkes Spill Hyatt

In 1863 John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920), an American printer and inventor was attracted by a reward of $10,000 offered by Phelan and Collander, the nations largest billiard supply company for anyone that could create a suitable Elephant ivory substitute for use in making billiard balls. Billiards began in the 1600s using wooden balls. They were later made of ivory and the rising popularity of billiards in the 1800s caused elephants to be killed at a disturbing rate and become endangered.

Hyatt began experimenting with a combination of shellac and bone dust layered over a core of wound fiber. He was granted a patent in 1865 and formed the Hyatt Billiard Ball Company. Hyatt also designed the machinery and manufacturing techniques to make these billiard balls.

In 1868 while working in his print shop John Wesley Hyatt discovered entirely by accident a better product to make billiard balls. It was Collodion, a flammable syrupy solution of Nitrocellulose in ether and alcohol used in wet-plate photography, surgical dressing and in theatrical make-up. A bottle of Collodion had tipped over and spilled. What Hyatt descovered was a thin layer of dried Collodion that was about the same density of ivory. From this discovery Hyatt designed a billiard ball that consisted of paper flock and shellac coated with a thick layer of Collodion, bone and ivory. His new product was patented and he began production in a factory he called the Albany Billiard Ball Company.

Hyatt Pocket Billiard Balls
Hyatt Pocket Billiard Balls

Hyatt later improved the collodion compound by adding camphor. The results was the world’s first commercially successful semi-synthetic thermoplastic that was easy to mold into objects under heat and pressure. Hyatt named this new product Celluloid in 1869 and founded the Celluloid Manufacturing Company in Newark, NJ to produce and market raw Celluloid stock in sheets, blocks and rod form. He then sold the raw Celluloid to manufacturing companies for so much per pound and a royalty on their sales. John Hyatt even set up the Albany Dental Plate Co. to manufacture Celluloid dental blanks for false teeth.

Celluloid Manufacturing Company
Celluloid Manufacturing Company – Newark, NJ

As a close imitation of elephant ivory, Celluloid replaced many items of the ivory manufacturers. Great quantities of ivory was used for Plano keys and billiard balls. Celluloid billiard balls were half the price of ivory and more durable. Large amounts of Celluloid was used for combs, brushes, hand mirrors and for all kinds of toilet articles. Celluloid took the place of chess men, handles of knives and forks, jewelry, whips, canes, umbrella handles photographic images and film.

Celluloid is no longer widely used, although its most common uses today are in table tennis balls, musical instruments and guitar picks. Celluloid was slowly replaced by Bakelite and Catalin in the 1930s and 1940s.