In this article we're going to continue our transformation years with the changes that were made in billiard balls to begin with. The early billiard balls were made of wood. They were easy to shape, inexpensive and readily available. In the 1600s ivory billiard balls came into use.
While they were more playable than wood they were very expensive and only the very rich could afford them. And while they were nice to look at they never were very dependable. They also took a very long time to make as the tusk softening process took almost two years. Ivory billiard balls could split or fracture easily if not made just right.
New balls had to be broken in gently by being struck softly for the first couple of months. Finally in 1869 an Albany chemist mixed nitrocellulose with camphor under high pressure. This resulted in a hard, shiny, mouldable substance he called celluloid. The man's name was John Wesley Hyatt and while he didn't know it at the time, he had just invented the world's first plastic.
It was this discovery that led to improvements in billiard balls to this very day. In April of that same year Hyatt discovered "collodion," which was actually an early form of celluloid. The addition of collodion to the surface of the balls resulted in a hard and perfectly smooth surface. Unfortunately, the new balls could shatter under hard impact and manufacture of them had to be stopped until a fix for this problem was found. The discovery that solved this problem was celluloid.
However, because of the problems with his earlier billiard balls, acceptance of these celluloid billiard balls did not come easily. However, this process did lead to the discovery of Bakelite and cast-phenolic resins which are the main components of billiard balls even to this day. Then in 1892 William A. Spinks, a professional billiard player from Chicago, began working with chemists on the components of chalk. It was during one of his trips to Paris that he discovered a chalk like no other. He was impressed with the chalk's ability to grip during play and set out to invent a chalk that could grip even more.
Finally in 1897 he was granted a patent for billiard chalk, which actually did not contain any billiard chalk at all. It was made up entirely of silica and axolite. This compound was crushed to fine powder and then air floated to achieve just the right fineness. The effect of the new "chalk" on the game would change billiards forever. The grit actually took hold of the ball on impact in a way that had never been seen before.
It also solved the problem of blackboard chalk which discolored the billiard cloth and even rotted the fabric. The original color of this chalk was green but eventually it was made in just about every color. This chalk greatly improved the performance of the cue tip and literally revolutionized the game itself. In the next article in this series we'll take a look at cue construction during the transformation years. .
By: Michael Russell