A future in plastics and billiard balls

John Wesley Hyatt marker.jpg

One word: Plastics.

By Carl Johnson

"There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?"

That's what Mr. McGuire said to Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. That classic movie line was uttered almost exactly a century after John Wesley Hyatt first envisioned a future in plastics -- right here in Albany.

It started with an accident -- and a billiard ball.

John Wesley Hyatt was born in Starkey, New York, on the west side of Seneca Lake in 1837. When he was 16, he went to Illinois and became a journeyman printer. He (and later, his brother Isaiah) came to Albany and worked in printing. Hyatt was very interested in invention. He applied for some 200 patents -- including one for a knife sharpener in 1861.

As a printer, Hyatt worked with collodion, a cellulose nitrate solution used in printing images. The New York Times reported years later that "one day a bottle of collodion overturned, and it was after watching the solidification of the collodion that he got the idea of making celluloid." He filed for a patent in 1865, describing it as a "horn-like material" which would later be called "celluloid."

The story goes that Phelan and Callendar, a major manufacturer of billiard tables in New York City, offered a $10,000 prize for the creation of a composition ball to replace ivory. According to the Times, Hyatt entered that competition in 1863. He continued working as a printer for several years, living at 32 Chestnut Street and later at 149 Spring Street. But by the end of 1869, Hyatt had developed his invention into a number of other commercial products as well, all being manufactured in Albany.

The new Hyatt Manufacturing Company shared space with the Osborne & Newcomb factory at Broadway and Livingston, where the companies made checkers, dominoes and billiard balls from the new miracle product. By 1871, Hyatt had moved his billiard ball works to 19 Beaver Street, just west of Broadway, and his brother, Isaiah Smith Hyatt, took up the checker and domino business as the Albany Embossing Company, a few blocks south at 4-6 Pruyn Street. The material was also apparently put to pioneering use in dental plates, by the Albany Dental Plate Company .

The fame of the Hyatt Billiard Ball Company spread quickly. In 1871, the New York Times effused over the firm:

"who make billiard balls of a composition which, when colored, can hardly be distinguished from ivory balls, and which, in addition to many other advantages, are claimed to be much more durable. They certainly have this one superiority over ivory balls, that whereas ivory is always apt to be unequal in density, giving a tendency to irregular direction and to 'wabbling,' the composition balls have an unerring center of gravity from the mere fact of their being composition -- every component part being thoroughly mixed and disseminated throughout the ball." The Times went on to describe the manufacture of the composition balls: "These balls are composed principally of "gun cotton," reduced to a fine pulp and molded. . . After molding, the ball is put in a globular press, and reduced about one-third in bulk. . . Three months elapse from the day of molding till the time when a ball is ready to be sent to purchasers. The balls cost about one-half the price ordinarily charged for ivory balls."

Here's a look at some Hyatt Billiard Balls.

Hyatt seems to have lost control of his Albany operations to his investors, including Albany machine shop operator and brass founder Peter Kinnear. Slowly, another Hyatt invention, bonsilate, a mixture of finely ground bone and sodium silicate, took the place of celluloid in billiard ball manufacture, and in a new venture, The Bonsilate Button Company.

Hyatt still had positions with the various companies, but had moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he turned the dental plate business into the Celluloid Manufacturing Company. In Albany, the companies continued to churn out billiard balls, dominoes and buttons on Grand Street, on a site now covered by the South Mall Arterial. At some point early in the new century, the Albany Billiard Ball Company moved to a large factory well out of the heart of the city, on Delaware Avenue at Southern Boulevard. When that factory finally closed down and the site was redeveloped in the 1980s, the Plastics Pioneers Association put up an historic marker denoting the location of "First Plastic / Celluloid - Invented 1868 / by John Wesley Hyatt / First Use - Billiard Balls / Albany Billiard Ball Co."

Unfortunately, the marker is miles from downtown Albany, where celluloid was actually invented and first produced.

Carl Johnson writes about history and other fun stuff at Hoxsi.org and mynonurbanlife.com.

Find It

Former site of the Albany Billiard Ball Company
Delaware Ave and Southern Blvd
Albany, NY 12209


Interesting. I vaguely remember the old factory building on Delaware Avenue. Anyone know what year it actually closed?

I believe it was somewhere between 1985 and 1987.

Greg Laden, who grew up in Albany and now blogs at ScienceBlogs.com, is quite the story teller while remaining true to facts. Here's his account (with a couple diversions) of the fire that demolished the Delaware Ave. factory:

I've also seen Eagle Street as the original location where Osborne & Newcomb first produced the stuff (still, nowhere near the marker).

In a 1914 speech, Hyatt said "...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 fact and saying he did not care so much about it, but that instantly every man in the room pulled a gun."

That speech, and lots more about Hyatt's work, is in the Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Vol. 6, Part 1, 1914 ( http://books.google.com/books?id=gzJGAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA159 ).

Bath (may I call you Bath?), I listed all the various locations of early celluloid production in a much longer and vastly less entertaining version of this article at http://www.mynonurbanlife.com/2010/02/so-where-was-celluloid-invented.html , I left out references to the explosivity of early celluloid billiard balls because there is some serious question as to their veracity, though no doubt it made for amusing speeches. There is NO question, however, that the process itself was fraught with danger; fires may have been among the reasons for frequent early moves in Albany, and fires followed Hyatt to his location in New Jersey.

I have a correction. The Billiard Ball Factory was located at Delaware Avenue and Whitehall Road; NOT Southern Boulevard. Prior to its destruction there was a green space around it. I lived on Matilda Street at the time and was one of the people who organized with other neighbors to fight its short-sighted demolition.
The Mall we were fighting was the one put up along the west side of Delaware Avenue from Whitehall Avenue southward. Many small businesses, especially drug store owners, were very concerned with competition that would come from a new chain drug store coming in. A branch of the Albany Library was proposed for the Mall and that helped sell the idea.
You can see a small homage to the Billiard Ball Factory on the eastern facade.
The newspaper story you linked to mentions the struggle to stop the destruction and new mall - now home to a vacant Friendly's, by the way. And, one of the independent drug stores is now gone.

My Dad actually worked at the "Billiard Ball" for 30 + years till it was sold and operations moved out of the US (go figure). I well remember going there as a child - there were HUGE furnaces and an overwhelming smell of chemicals. It was a scary place, for sure. However, I also remember the outside & surrounding area was like a big park - many old trees and green space to run in. Factory or not, it was an improvement over the strip mall that's there now, just another blight. I guess I'm trying to say "Thanks Albany Billiard Ball - you sent 5 of us to college & paid for my parents' home from 1960ish till 1985ish". Appreciate the post Carl.
PS: I have 2 or 3 full sets of these pool balls - we would have more, but over the years they were used for LOTS of things. They're especially good for holding pussy willow branches in a big vase for an Easter Egg tree - lolol. They are NOT good to use as a street hockey puck, when they hit a car window - it shatters. Just ask my brother and then my son. I also have a full set of Bicentennial Balls - probably worth some $ somewhere .....

I am interested in locating photographs of the no. 9 Hyatt pool ball (circa 1915) in both the single stripe and double striped variety for a piece of art that I am prepared to execute. I have a piece of letterhead requesting a replacement, and the vendor wants to know whether the customer needs the single stripe or double striped ball. Please. I will compensate.

The Ball Hyatt manufacturing, is still very active at the Ft. Edward location, No pool balls though, but about anything else. Stop in and ask for Bob Simpson anytime. JM

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