At Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, an Exhibition Considers the Promises and Problems of Plastic
In the early 1860s, an advertisement in The New York Times offered $10,000 to anyone who could invent a new material for billiard balls. At the time, elephant ivory was the material of choice for the opaque, solid spheres used for the then increasingly popular game, but manufacturers began to realize that the material was a limited resource, prompting a search for a replacement material. Among the notable yet not-quite-sufficient entries was a hard, malleable material invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt called celluloid, which was made by mixing the synthetic compound nitrocellulose with camphor, a waxy substance found in the wood of the camphor laurel tree. Though celluloid would later prove to be less than ideal for billiard balls—due to the substance's flammability, celluloid balls were said to at times produce a mild explosion upon impact—it would become the first commercially successful synthetic plastic. Much like the innovations of Bakelite (1907), plexiglass (1933), and nylon (1935) that followed it, this revolutionary new material would later come to demonstrate incredible versatility and democratizing power.