Once Upon a Time, Exploding Billiard Balls Were An Everyday Thing

There was a time when taking a perfect shot in a game of billiards could cause the ball to explode. That’s because billiard balls were made of celluloid, an early plastic that was highly combustible. Although it came to be associated with film, celluloid originated as part of an attempt to solve the ivory problem. In the mid-19th century, there was a common belief that ivory was in short supply. At the same time, billiards was an extremely popular game. That popularity, combined with the fear of a shortage of ivory, led to the development of plastic. The billiard ball has to have certain physical properties. It has to rebound properly and has to be of a certain density. The only material that would do everything the game required was top-grade ivory. In the search for a substitute, billiards supply company Pheland and Collender offered $10,000 to anyone who could invent one. John Wesley Hyatt developed celluloid and walked away with the reward. As you might imagine, these plastics were highly flammable, and when used in billiard balls, they produced a mild explosion. Today, billiard balls are made out of resin.