What Are Pool Balls Made Of? A Strange History...

One Ball's Journey Makes An Intriguing Tale

History of Pool, Billiard Ball Progression, John Wesley Hyatt, pocket billiards
"Modern" pool balls are now rather old in pool history. Photo courtesy of InsidePool.com

The History Of Pool - Fascinating Equipment Details

Today's billiard balls to most represent a marvel of engineering history, though their technology was established many decades ago. This advance of pool technology makes for a fascinating "object ball" lesson.

Imagine the ease with which the first pool balls were honed, made of mere wood like wooden cuesticks. Beautiful to the touch and inexpensive to produce, the wood made for decidedly non-uniform spheres, with its potential to warp, crack and discolor easily.

By the 17th Century, "ivories" came into vogue. At first, only the richest members of pool society could strut their stuff in ivory. Gorgeous in appearance, with the white of the cue ball and other balls yellowing over time (or even turning blue after the advent of modern billiard chalk in the late 1800's), the ivories were somewhat prone to variance of humidity and cracking, especially if they were struck roughly in the beginning of their "career".

Unfortunately, elephants worldwide were hunted to near extinction for their tusks prized for both balls and cue ferrules. Each hunted tusk was torn from the animal then softened for years at a time to prepare the costly pool equipment.

After "Pool Shooting Man" had for centuries pursued the mighty elephants, John Wesley Hyatt struck chemist's gold in his Albany lab by mixing camphor with nitrocellulose under extreme pressure. Mr. Hyatt was awarded a $10,000 purse in 1869 for creating the new round billiard item, but as the "nitro" in nitrocellulose implies, the resultant plastic substance ball was flammable in play and even explosive during construction!

Later, Hyatt created "collodion", an early celluloid, adding the new compound to the surface of the plastic balls, making them durable and round to tolerances of thousandths of an inch. The improved balls often shattered beneath impact, however, until his celluloid coating was perfected, providing the "Bakelite" and "phenolic resin" balls in use today.

Amazingly, in his obviation of ivory, Mr. Hyatt not only saved elephants from extinction but invented non-environmentally friendly plastic!

Sometime along the way, clay balls came into vogue for their low cost, but out of vogue again for breaking occasionally and for taking somewhat divergent paths than resin balls (as old timers swear who played them through the 1950's and 60's).

I remember shooting pool with clay balls, one time shooting hard enough to both split and sink balls, making me wonder if I deserved one half or a full point for each piece downed!

Sometimes, our personal history is a less than glorious entry into the history of pool hall of fame...