Billiards & Photography: A Strange Connection

When you look back in time, you’ll notice an often confusing web of relationships with seemingly unrelated things. Charles Panati, in his book Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, writes about the development of photographic film and it's relationship to, of all things, ivory. 


Now, it’s not that anyone set out to specifically develop film. In reality, a Birmingham, England professor of natural science, Alexander Parkes, was experimenting with a laboratory chemical called nitrocellulose. When he mixed the chemical with camphor he discovered that the compound made a flexible transparent material that he called Parkesine. 

This was the early 1850s and as it turned out, there just was no market for a thin transparent film at that time. This nifty little product would sit on the shelf for over a decade until the world faced a massive shortage of ivory. A New England manufacturer of ivory billiard balls offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could come up with a suitable ivory substitute. 

A printer named John Hyatt won that challenge with a product he called Celluloid and in 1872 he registered the trademark. Now, he didn’t develop the product, he heard about the compound developed by Parkes in England and bought the rights in 1868. 

Celluloid made some great billiard balls and that may have been the end of the story until a guy named George Eastman came knocking on his door. Eastman was developing a consumer camera and wanted something other than glass plates for his photosensitive surface. Celluloid was perfect. 

In 1889 Eastman launched his Kodak cameras, introducing the world to celluloid photographic film. And, it didn't take Thomas Edison long to figure out that these Celluloid strips were just what was needed to make motion pictures. 

So now when you sit down to watch a movie or look at photographs, thank an ivory shortage and a tinkering British professor. 

Have a very safe and happy New Year!!