Celluloid 2016-12-06T05:35:20+00:00


From the middle of the 19th century the supply of ivory became insuficient to meet the demand,so much so, that in the USA, Phelan & Collander who were manufacturers of billiard balls, offered $10,000 for a suitable substitute – but, so far as is known, the prize ws never awarded. John Wesley Hyatt tried various compositions and patented several ideas, including an ‘improved method of making solid collodion‘. He was aware of the earlier work on cellulose nitrate – particularly that by Parkes and Spill and of the beneficial effect of incorporating camphor. His crucial contribution was the use of heat and pressure – heat melted the camphor making it into a solvent for the cellulose nitrate. This minimised the need for additional solvent and eliminated most of the problems associated with the much larger quantity of volatile solvent used by his predecessors. This breakthrough in approach was the reason why Spill’s patent action against Hyatt was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1870 Hyatt and his brother set up the Albany Dental Plate Company to manufacture dental plate blanks from the new material which they called Celluloid. In 1871 the Celluloid Manufacturing Company was established in Albany, transferring to Newark, New Jerse in 1872. A further reason why Hyatt’s enterprise was successful where others had failed was that he developed machinery for working the new material – his ‘stuffing machine’ was a forerunner of injection moulding. He worked with machinery manufacturers such as Burroughs to make the first plastics processing machinery.

Celluloid became the generic name for cellulose nitrate plastics and its use for knife handles, washable collars and cuffs, toys, table tennis balls, etc became widespread. However, the highly inflammable nature of celluloid was always a hazard to its manufacture and use, and as newer plastics materials became available its use gradually declined. In the USA, celluloid companies became merged into and engulfed by firms making newer plastics and in 1949 manufacture of celluloid at Newark ceased – 77 years after it began there.

It is used now only to make table tennis balls, the properties of which have not yet been successfully imitated by any other material. Celluloid has long lost its economic importance but the word itself has not died because of the influence its ideas has had on 20th century technology.

Metal badges covered with cellulose nitrate Snow White & 7 Dwarves blow moulded in cellulose nitrate Cellulose nitrate blow moulded baby's rattle
Celluloid figurines Spectacles case in cellulose nitrate Cellulose nitrate figurines