John Wesley Hyatt
(1837 – 1920)
John Wesley Hyatt was born in Starkey, New York in 1837. At the age of 16 he began work as a printer in Illinois and later in Albany in New York State. Here, billiard ball maker, Phelan & Collander were offering a $10,000 reward for a suitable substitute for ivory, the growing shortage of which was threatening their business.
Hyatt spent several years in the search for such a material but there is no evidence that the prize was ever awarded. Indeed, Hyatt set up his own manufacturing company which, a little later, became the Albany Billiard Ball Company.
Initially, composition balls were coated in a coloured layer of almost pure cellulose nitrate. In his experiments, Hyatt discovered the solvent action of camphor on cellulose nitrate under moderate heat and pressure, and this was the basis of his 1870 patent. But, in addition, he also developed the necessary machinery for working his new material – something which his unsuccessful predecessor, Parkes, had failed to do.
One of the first uses of the new plastics material was for making denture plates – previously made from hard rubber – and Hyatt formed the Albany Dental Plate Company in 1870. In 1872 its name was changed to the Celluloid Manufacturing Company and in 1873 the company moved to larger premises in Newark, New Jersey. Celluloid had been born.
He was awarded the Perkin Gold Medal in 1914.