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Intelligent Machines

Pioneering Pretender

One word: celluloid

For a young Dustin Hoffman in the classic 1967 movie The Graduate there was just one word: plastics. But for the journeyman printer who developed the first commercially viable artificial plastic nearly 100 years earlier, there were two: billiard balls. For, many historians argue, the inspiration for John Wesley Hyatt’s 1870 invention of celluloid was a New York manufacturer’s offer of $10, 000 to anyone who came up with a suitable substitute for the ivory that was then used to make the spheres. Following the lead of European chemists, Hyatt began experimenting with nitrocellulose, a group of flammable or explosive substances formed by treating paper or cotton with acids. Hyatt’s innovation was to mix nitrocellulose pulp with pulverized camphor gum and heat the mixture under heavy pressure in a mold; as the product cooled it became “as hard as horn or bone,” according to Hyatt’s patent on the process.

Celluloid, as Hyatt’s brother and business partner named the new material, was a versatile impostor for many natural products. By coloring, carving and polishing the plastic, manufacturers produced fake ivory and bone combs, knife handles, piano keys and trinkets. Thin sheets of celluloid formed waterproof imitation linen for detachable linen collars and cuffs. And the Hyatts did make celluloid-coated billiard balls, but those weren’t very popular-one Colorado saloonkeeper wrote to complain that the colliding balls occasionally produced explosive reports, prompting his clientele to draw their guns.

For all its versatility, celluloid never supplanted any of the natural materials it was created to imitate, since customers apparently preferred the real thing. But the plastic pretender paved the way for the modern plastics industry, and sparked the enterprise now synonymous with artificiality: cinema.

This story is part of our November/December 1998 Issue
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In 1889, George Eastman began to market the first Kodak camera. Where older cameras had relied on single-exposure glass plates or fragile paper films, the Kodak employed a thin film of celluloid coated with photographic chemicals. Within a few years, the first filmmakers were using strips of celluloid to make movies, a feat that would have been impossible without the sturdy, flexible, transparent plastic. Less flammable films soon usurped celluloid’s place in the projection booth, but without Hyatt’s pioneering plastic, The Graduate’s screenwriter might have wound up as a playwright with no plastics industry to poke fun at.

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