The Post-Billiards Age

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
We live in a post-billiards world. There was an age of billiards, and it has been over for so long, most of us have no idea how huge billiards once was.

Dan Weissmann:
A hundred years ago, there were 830 pool halls in my city of Chicago. Now if you add up all the gas stations, all the McDonald’s and all the Starbucks in Chicago right now, you’d be nowhere close to that number. You’d be a little under 600 if you want to be exact.

Roman Mars:
And I know you do, you beautiful nerds.

Dan Weissmann:
Today, Chicago has fewer than 10 pool halls.

Roman Mars:
That is Dan Weissmann – reporter, Chicagoan. Dan originally reported this story for ‘Marketplace.’

Dan Weissmann:
So billiards, not what it used to be.

Roman Mars:
But this is a post-billiards world in a much more profound sense because the growth of billiards led to the development of a material that, for better or worse, came to define the modern world.

Dan Weissmann:
I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. You listening? Plastics. This story starts with a guy named Michael Phelan-

Michael Shamos:
Who’s regarded by everybody as really the father of American billiards.

Dan Weissmann:
That’s Michael Shamos. He’s the author of the ‘Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards.’

Roman Mars:
Phelan was a brilliant player, but he also raised awareness of the sport, promoted it, arranging the biggest big-money matches.

Michael Shamos:
Phelan was totally remarkable because he was everything. He was an all-around everything guy.

Dan Weissmann:
He started a huge billiards hall in San Francisco. He patented a new kind of billiard cushion, and then he took the money he had won playing billiards and writing books on billiards and used it to become the first big manufacturer of billiard tables and equipment.

Roman Mars:
Phelan created the age of billiards in the US and he felt that to further popularize the game of billiards-

Dan Weissmann:
And sell more tickets to matches and sell more books and sell more equipment, he would need to standardize the gear. Because if tables and balls weren’t the same from one location to another, well you were basically playing a different game every time you went somewhere new.

Roman Mars:
But standardizing the billiard ball was no easy task. It’s a very, very high standard to meet.

Michael Shamos:
The billiard ball has to have certain physical properties. It has to rebound properly, it has to be a uniform density.

Dan Weissmann:
And at the time, there was really only one material that would do. Ivory, which was not cheap. Going to Africa, shooting elephants. That is dangerous and expensive, not to mention horrible.

Michael Shamos:
And people for decades had been trying to find substitutes for ivory, and they tried a variety of materials including even metal balls, iron balls, which really don’t perform well.

Roman Mars:
Iron billiard balls just weren’t the same.

Dan Weissmann:
Ivory balls had just the right weight, the most even roll, the best rebound off the cue stick, off each other, off the side of the table. Nothing was as good. And not only that, only the best grade ivory would do. In fact, when you look at records from the ivory trade, the top grade of ivory is actually called ‘billiard ball ivory.’

Roman Mars:
And billiard balls required a lot of billiard ball-grade ivory.

Dan Weissmann:
Unlike the ivory on piano keys, which were just a veneer over wood, billiard balls had to be made of 100% solid ivory and therefore-

Michael Shamos:
The average number of billiard balls that could be obtained from a single tusk was three.

Dan Weissmann:
If you are the best, luckiest billiard ball turner, maybe you could get five balls from one tusk, but even so, that means one set of billiard balls is going to require killing at least two elephants.

Roman Mars:
So billiard balls were very expensive, and when you’re trying to build an industry, that’s a problem.

Dan Weissmann:
For Phelan’s company, it was the problem.

Robert Friedel:
The entire trade depended on the shortage of this one exotic material.

Dan Weissmann:
That’s Robert Friedel, a professor at the University of Maryland. He studies the history of technology, and he wrote the book on what happens next.

Roman Mars:
Phelan and his colleagues were acutely aware that their dependency on ivory was not ideal.

Robert Friedel:
They’re really desperate, I don’t think is too strong a word, to find some kind of substitute material, but there simply wasn’t anything.

Dan Weissmann:
Phelan takes out an ad in the paper, and here’s a dramatization of what happened when a guy named John Wesley Hyatt found that ad.

[Clip from Cavalcade of America]
“Say, John?”
John Wesley Hyatt: “Yeah.”
“Man, look at this, read it yourself.”
John Wesley Hyatt: “A prize of $10,000 for the discovery of a satisfactory substitute for ivory and making billiard balls.”

Dan Weissmann:
That’s from a 1937 episode of a radio show called ‘Cavalcade of America.’

[Clip from Cavalcade of America]
“Say, that’s a lot of money.”
John Wesley Hyatt: “Certainly is.”

Roman Mars:
In terms of wages people earned at the time, it was like three million dollars.

Dan Weissmann:
Hyatt wasn’t a chemist, but he was a tinkerer and he worked for years to win Phelan’s prize.

Roman Mars:
By trade, Hyatt was a printer, and printers used nitrated cellulose to protect their hands. It’s still sold as liquid bandages.

Robert Friedel:
And that material turned out to have very interesting properties, and in particular, it dissolved and it creates a very syrupy liquid.

Roman Mars:
In the radio dramatization, Hyatt gets his key inspiration when a bottle of this stuff overturns and he watches it dry into a film that he finds interesting.

[Clip from Cavalcade of America]
John Wesley Hyatt: “Why this bit of film has given me an idea, and the idea might be worth $10,000.”

Roman Mars:
Hyatt’s idea might’ve been worth $10,000, but it was also dangerous. Nitrated cellulose is highly, highly flammable.

[Clip from Cavalcade of America]
“You mean just say you’re going to heat that nitrated cotton and compress it?”
John Wesley Hyatt: “That’s right.”
“I’m out of here, getting as far away as I can before you start using that press.”

Roman Mars:
But John Hyatt and his lab assistant, Jim kept going. They’d heat up the nitrated cotton, put it in the press and…

[Clip from Cavalcade of America]
Jim: “Ready to open the press, John?”
John Wesley Hyatt: “Yeah. Throw the lever.”
Jim: “John, what is it? Why don’t you speak? What’s the matter?”
John Wesley Hyatt: “Look, Jim! The press, look at it. Jim, it’s what we’ve been trying to find all this time, a material that will take the place of ivory.”

Roman Mars:
And the material that would take the place of ivory was plastic.

Dan Weissmann:
Hyatt called his new material ‘celluloid,’ but celluloid did not win Phelan’s $10,000 prize.

Robert Friedel:
Celluloid is a wonderful material. It’s a beautiful plastic. It can be colored in all sorts of ways. It can be shaped beautifully. It has a wonderful range of uses, but billiard balls was not one of them.

Roman Mars:
Balls made of celluloid just didn’t bounce right, but Hyatt tried to make a go of it anyway.

Robert Friedel:
He does set up a billiard ball company, but his balls are not made of celluloid. They have a thin veneer of celluloid on the outside, but they’re mainly plaster on the inside and they’re a very inferior billiard ball.

Dan Weissmann:
Hyatt didn’t give up on celluloid. He went into business with his brother, Isaiah.

Robert Friedel:
The Hyatts set up a whole series of companies to try to exploit what they are convinced is a very nifty material, but they can’t figure out what on Earth the market’s going to be.

Roman Mars:
They tried dental plates. You can color celluloid to look just like real gums, but there is a problem.

Robert Friedel:
Turns out that celluloid gets soft if you’re drinking hot tea.

Dan Weissmann:
Eventually, they find the best use for celluloid is imitation ivory, albeit not for billiard balls, but for versions of popular ivory luxury goods. Knife handles, combs, hand mirrors.

Robert Friedel:
Even toys and boxes, a gigantic range of things, many of which would never actually have been made in ivory.

Dan Weissmann:
Also, piano keys. A Sears catalog from the 1890s offers pianos with a choice of key coverings: ivory or celluloid.

Roman Mars:
And of course, the most famous use of celluloid would eventually be to make film stock for movies.

Dan Weissmann:
Meanwhile, billiard balls kept getting made out of ivory.

Roman Mars:
Ivory that came mostly from Africa, which of course the Europeans had been busy colonizing and exploiting. And the ivory trade was pretty awful for the people of Africa.

Dan Weissmann:
Joseph Conrad wrote ‘Heart of Darkness’ based largely on his own experience in the Belgian Congo where ivory was the big product.

Roman Mars:
Conrad called the whole enterprise, “The vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”

Dan Weissmann:
And Conrad didn’t necessarily care about this part, but obviously the ivory trade was also terrible for elephants.

Robert Friedel:
So what was, in fact, a pretty common animal in central Africa in the middle of the 19th century is becoming increasingly scarce by the 20th.

Roman Mars:
By the time of World War I, the ivory supply crunch, the one that Michael Phelan had started worrying about 50 years before, had arrived.

Dan Weissmann:
And around this time, the real significance of Hyatt’s celluloid had begun to show itself. It hadn’t worked for billiard balls. However-

Robert Friedel:
It begins to inspire people to think about what artificial material might be available, what people could make, what people could invent.

Roman Mars:
In 1907, a chemist named Leo Baekeland comes up with a new kind of plastic made from petroleum. He names it Bakelite after himself.

Dan Weissmann:
And one cool thing about Bakelite, you can melt it. Mix in fillers.

Robert Friedel:
And it turns out that with that capability, you can vary the density, you can vary the elasticity and you can make a perfect billiard ball.

Roman Mars:
And so they finally replaced ivory balls with this new plastic, Bakelite.

Dan Weissmann:
By the 1940s, even top pool tournaments were being played with plastic balls, but by then pool had passed its peak. It crashed as the Depression began, and never regained its former prominence. The age of billiards was over.

Roman Mars:
And this post-billiards age, the age of plastics had really gotten into gear.

Archival Tape:
“For example, the handle of your toothbrush is probably plastic, so undoubtedly are the barrel of your fountain pen, the instrument panel in your car. And yes, these are just a few of more than 25,000 modern uses for plastics.”

Dan Weissmann:
That’s plastics, plural. By that time, you’ve got a bunch on the market. PVC, vinyl, polyethylene, plexiglass, nylon, and in labs, they’re discovering the stuff that would end up becoming Teflon and saran wrap.

Roman Mars:
And good old celluloid, the plastic that started at all, had been retired, even from the movies.

Robert Friedel:
It was indispensable at the beginning of motion pictures, but it was highly dangerous and flammable.

Dan Weissmann:
Celluloid film caused several disastrous and fatal fires in movie theaters. By 1934, a new form, cellulose acetate, had taken the place of Hyatt’s cellulose nitrate for film.

Roman Mars:
Celluloid, born out of billiards, was the first plastic. It ushered in a new age of modern products, but it never succeeded in revolutionizing the game of billiards. It did, however, revolutionize another table sport.

Dan Weissmann:
Ping pong.

Roman Mars:
Before celluloid was invented, ping pong was played with something more closely resembling a golf ball, which as you can imagine, just didn’t have that perfect bounce.

Dan Weissmann:
Celluloid ping pong balls were used for years, but finally got bumped from tournament play in 2013. The reason? They were a little too bouncy.

Roman Mars:
Poor celluloid, it just can’t win. Someday we’ll find the perfect home for you, my bouncy friend. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Dan Weissmann with Katie Mingle, Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to Dave Bond, who runs the Chicago Billiard Museum, an online museum, which has an amazing collection of billiards related documents and data and images. We’ll have a link on our website.

  1. Ben

    loved the episode as always. one minor correction however; Bakelite is a thermosetting plastic and cannot be melted.

  2. An exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada last year included architectural drawings for new homes for the well-to-do from the late 19th-early 20th century: Every house had a Billiards Room on the ground floor.

  3. Another really great episode (although, most of ’em are…) I look back with nostalgia upon an age when you could make billiard balls out of guncotton, and nobody ever uttered the words, “risk assessment”.

  4. Jacob H.

    Celluloid has found a home in guitar manufacture. Fancy electric guitars have various bits bound in ivoroid (ivory colored celluloid) and guitars not fancy enough to have real pearl have pearloid (pearl colored celluloid) fingerboard inlays.

  5. Doug Healy

    What happened to all those (100s of 1,000s?) ivory pool balls? Did they disappear with the enthusiasm for billiards? They must be worth even more now – is there any use for old, round, ivory?

  6. Keaton Belliston

    And now, over a century later, we’re building passenger vehicles out of plastics—albeit of the carbon-reinforced variety. Look up the manufacturing process of the BMW i3 and i8 of you get a chance. They’re the first mass-produced CFRP passenger vehicles, iirc!

    Great episode! Good to hear some Antipop Consortium, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist