History of Celluloid

John Wesley Hyatt and the Invention of Celluloid

     John Wesley Hyatt, Jr. was born in Starkey, Yates County, New York, on Nov. 28, 1837, the son of John W. Hyatt, Sr. and Anne Gleason Hyatt. (John Sr. had been named after the famous Methodist Evangelist John Wesley and was ardently religious.) The Hyatts had a family of seven children; three girls and four boys, of which John Jr. was the next to youngest.

John W. Hyatt â“ inventor of Celluloid, father of the modern plastics industry.

John W. Hyatt, inventor of Celluloid, father of the modern plastics industry.

In the village of Starkey the Hyatts owned and operated the town's blacksmith shop. As a child, John Jr. helped with the family business and at an early age became fascinated with machinery and its operation. In school he was especially bright, excelling in mathematics.
     When John was 15 years old, his parents sent him to Eddystown Seminary where they hoped he would prepare for a life in the ministry. John, however, had other ideas and a year later, dropped out of seminary and headed west toward the bustling city of Chicago where his older brother Isaiah had settled.
     By 1854 at the age of 17, John was in Illinois working as a printer's apprentice. He stayed there for several years, often finding work with the help of his older brother Isaiah, who was an editor living in nearby Rockford. While in Illinois, Hyatt met and married a young Chicago woman named Julia D. Philleo.
     On Feb.19, 1861, J.W. Hyatt was issued a patent for his first invention, a kitchen knife sharpener. On June 17, 1862, the ambitious 24-year-old received his second patent, #35,652 Improvement In Knife Or Scissor Sharpener, based on the invention he had patented the year before.
     Shortly thereafter, Hyatt and his wife returned to the Albany, New York, area where he found work as a journeyman printer. It was sometime in 1863 that John saw a newspaper advertisement that caught his attention and sparked his creative interest. Phelan and Collander, the nation's largest billiard supply company, was offering the handsome reward of $10,000 to the first person who could create a suitable ivory substitute for use in billiard balls.
     Fueled by the promised reward money, Hyatt accepted the challenge. Working in the print shop by day and experimenting nights and weekends, he diligently sought to develop an ivory substitute and become the winner of the cash reward. In September of 1865, Hyatt made application for a patented process of manufacturing billiard balls using a combination of shellac and ivory/bone dust, layered over a core of wound fiber. When the patent was granted on October 10, 1865 (#50,359), he took action to protect his interest; within a few months he and his trusted friend Peter Kinnear formed the Hyatt Billiard Ball Company. Together they developed machinery and manufacturing techniques for the production of wound fiber core and shellac composition billiard balls. The year was 1866.
     A short time after this development, personal tragedy struck the Hyatt household; Julia, John's 26-year-old wife, contracted pneumonia and died on October 9, 1867, leaving behind her grieving 29-year-old husband.
     Undaunted by his loss, Hyatt continued to experiment in hopes of improving on his invention. Since his billiard balls lacked the characteristics and density of true ivory, he continued to experiment with familiar materials such as sawdust, paper flock, gum shellac, and varnish. Over the course of time, he successfully developed a composition material that was patented on April 14, 1868 (Pat. #76,765), Improvement In Compositions For Billiard Balls and Other Articles.
     Hyatt also developed a pressed wood composition that had potential as a molding material. With the help of his older brother Isaiah, he formed a small family business which would profit from the substance. In 1868, along with younger brother Charles, the Hyatt Mfg. Co. was established at 29 Quackenbush St. in Albany for the production of pressed composition dominoes and checkers.
     Meanwhile John continued his job as a printer, while spending as much time as possible in his search to invent artificial ivory. As with many wonderful inventions, it was an accidental discovery that lead to his eventual success.
     While working in the print shop one morning, Hyatt reached for the collodion bottle, only to find that the solution had tipped over and spilled. Expecting to clean up a sticky mess, what he discovered instead was a dried piece of solid collodion about the size and thickness of his thumbnail. John observed that the density of the material resembled that of the ivory he had so earnestly been trying to duplicate. Realizing the significance in his findings, he exclaimed "Eureka!" at his discovery. It was the breakthrough Hyatt needed and from that day forward, he turned his full attention toward experimenting with solid and liquid collodion.