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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Almanac/Shooting Pool, Not Elephants

Air Date: Week of

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This week, we have facts about the first plastic-making process. In 1870, a billiards challenge led to the first plastic patent.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.


[MUSIC: May Aulderheide "The Richmond Rag" Fluffy Ruffle Girls/Women in Ragtime]

This week in 1870, John Wesley Hyatt patented the first plastic-making process in response to an unusual challenge. Two years before, a New York billiard company had offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could find a replacement for ivory billiard balls. The resilience and moisture resistance of ivory made it highly prized as a material for billiards, but it was awfully expensive.

Billiard makers had experimented with different substitutes including steel, iron, and even sawdust shellacked with animal blood. John Hyatt first tried coating layers of cloth with nitrocellulose: a substance made by dipping cotton in nitric acid. Trouble with that was it formed an explosive. There was talk that out West these pyrotechnic billiard balls had cowboys reaching for their six shooters when they thought they heard gunfire was coming from the pool halls.

It’s debatable just how explosive those billiards were, but Mr. Hyatt realized he still needed something better. He then discovered that by combining nitrocellulose with camphor, it would harden into a non-explosive substance that he called “celluloid.” Celluloid became the favored material for billiard balls, and John Hyatt became the father of the pliable material we now know as plastic.

Ivory billiard sets still exist, but they can no longer be racked up for a game of pool. Decades of temperature change have distorted them into the shape of ovals. But plastic, of course, can stick around just about forever.

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.



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