John Wesley Hyatt, Jr. was born in Starkey, NY on November 28, 1837. His father John Wesley Hyatt, Sr operated a blacksmith shop and as a child John the younger helped with the family business and became interested in machinery. At 15 his parents sent him to the Seminary to become a minister. However, he dropped out after one year and joined his older brother in Chicago where he found work as a printer’s apprentice. He loved to tinker and spent much of his spare time on his inventions.
The young John Wesley Hyatt received his first patent in 1861 at the age 18. He patented a knife sharpener in Chicago and went on to develop a new method for making dominoes and checkers, starting a company to produce them. Over his lifetime he was involved with 236 patents second only to Thomas Alva Edison. His last patent was in 1919.
John W. Hyatt is most famous for his invention of Celluloid. This was prompted by a $10,000 prize offered for a substitute for the Elephant ivory used in billiard balls. Charged by the $10,000.00 reward Hyatt accepted the challenge by working in the print shop by day and experimenting nights and weekends. His first attempt was a combination of shellac, ivory dust, bone dust layered over a core of wound fiber. He received a patent on October 10, 1865 and formed the Hyatt Billiard Ball Company in Albany, NY. However, his billiard ball lacked the characteristic and density of Elephant Ivory.
In 1869 John Wesley Hyatt discovered by accident a compound he called Celluloid. Hyatt saw the potential of Celluloid as a substitute for the declining supply of ivory. His new composition billiard balls were more durable, rolled uniformly and had a stable center of gravity that made them far more superior to Elephant ivory billiard balls. His new pool balls also did not crack, chip or fade like ivory. The Albany Billiard Ball Company produced billiard balls for more than a century. At first Celluloid billiard balls then synthetic materials, plastic compounds and later high tech resins.
In 1872 Hyatt and his brother Isaiah moved to Newark, NJ. John Hyatt and Isaiah Hyatt, immediately put their invention to use. First they set up a company to make celluloid dental plates for false teeth, as an alternative to rubber. Then forming the Celluloid Manufacturing Company to produce raw Celluloid stock in blocks and sheets. It was then sold to various manufacturing companies by the pound plus a royalty on their sales. These companies included the Celluloid Brush Company, the Celluloid piano Key Company, the Celluloid Novelty Company, Meriden Cutlery Co. and the Celluloid Fancy Goods Co.
Other inventions included a machine in 1870 for turning billiard balls and a 50 row sewing machine. In 1881 the Hyatt’s established the Hyatt Pure Water Company patenting a unique filtering process in 1884. John Hyatt also designed a type of roller bearing to reduce friction on machinery and moving parts. He then founded the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company in Harrison, NJ.
In 1914 the 77 year old inventor was awarded a gold Perkin Medal for his outstanding contributions in industry and chemistry. In 1973 the Billiard Congress of American inducted him into their Hall of Fame and recognized him for his contribution to the sport of Billiards. John Wesley Hyatt died on May 10, 1920 of heart failure. He was 82 years old.
For some reason John W. Hyatt never tried to claim the $10,000 prize from Phelan and Collander, the nations largest billiard supply company.