Inventive Minds: Endangered Species - Seeking An Ivory Substitute Sparks the Plastics Revolution

Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

nventive Minds: Inventing Green features the stories of historic and contemporary inventors whose work on socially-responsible technologies creates profound change for the common good.

Celluloid billiard ball manufacture, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Elephants in Danger
“An enormous number of elephants are destroyed . . . for the ivory of the tusks. . . . Long before our human story is over the elephant will be numbered with extinct species.” —The People’s Magazine, 1867
Ivory Billiard Ball, Lemelson Center, 1800/1900, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

Ivory was the preferred material for billiard balls in the 19th century and the search for substitutes, whether motivated by economics or ethics, informed the invention of early plastics.

- Ivory billiard ball, late 1800s.

Ivory Billiard Ball, Lemelson Center, 1800/1900, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Celluloid Billiard Ball, Lemelson Center, John Wesley Hyatt, 1868, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

John Wesley Hyatt created a successful business making billiard balls with his invention of Celluloid in 1868.

- Celluloid billiard ball, 1868.

Celluloid Billiard Ball, Lemelson Center, John Wesley Hyatt, 1868, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Bakelite Billiard Balls, Lemelson Center, Leo Baekeland, 1910, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

Bakelite, announced by inventor Leo Baekeland in 1909, found many uses, from billiard balls and jewelry to electrical insulators.

- Bakelite billiard balls, after 1910.

Bakelite Billiard Balls, Lemelson Center, Leo Baekeland, 1910, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Vitalite Billiard Balls, Lemelson Center, Max Koebner, 1935, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

Vitalite billiard balls, made of a cast resin originally invented in Germany in the 1930s by chemist Max Koebner, were popular during the 1930s–1950s.

- Vitalite billiard balls, about 1935.

Vitalite Billiard Balls, Lemelson Center, Max Koebner, 1935, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Billiard ball polishing lathes, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

Celluloid billiard ball manufacture, 1920s.

"The balls next go to the polishing lathes illustrated in photograph 75, where they are sanded and polished."

- From "Manufacture of Celluloid Billiard Balls," Albany Billiard Ball Co. Records.

Billiard ball polishing lathes, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Final polishing of billiard balls with wax, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

"The manufacture of the celluloid balls is completed by a final polishing with wax in the polishing lathe."

- From "Manufacture of Celluloid Billiard Balls," Albany Billiard Ball Co. Records.

Final polishing of billiard balls with wax, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Inspecting freshly-manufactured billiard balls, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

Celluloid billiard ball manufacture, 1920s.

- Albany Billiard Ball Co. Records.Celluloid billiard ball manufacture, 1920s

Inspecting freshly-manufactured billiard balls, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Billiard balls ground on a merry-go-round, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

"After their final turning, the balls are ground in a merry-go-round illustrated in photograph 81."

- From "Manufacture of Celluloid Billiard Balls," Albany Billiard Ball Co. Records.

Billiard balls ground on a merry-go-round, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

"The balls are ground by being made to roll in a race between oppositely revolving surfaces in contact with water and fine abrasive."

Buffing billiard balls on a buffing wheel, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

"The manufacture of the synthetic balls is completed by buffing on a special buffing wheel, illustrated in photograph 84, where the final polishing is applied."

- From "Manufacture of Celluloid Billiard Balls," Albany Billiard Ball Co. Records.

Buffing billiard balls on a buffing wheel, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Celluloid billiard ball manufacture, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

Celluloid billiard ball manufacture, 1920s. Albany

- Billiard Ball Co. Records.

Celluloid billiard ball manufacture, Lemelson Center, Albany Billiard Ball Co., 1920/1929, From the collection of: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Credits: Story

Endangered Species

Story by Joyce Bedi and Alison Oswald
of the
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
at the
National Museum of American History

Presentation by
Marc Bretzfelder
<a href="https://www.si.edu>Smithsonian Institution</a><br>Office of the Chief Information Officer</p>

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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