During the game's early history, billiard balls were predominately made of wood, which was easily turned and inexpensive. Ivory balls came into use in the early 17th century and were preferred in spite of their shortcomings. Ivory from elephant tusks had to be seasoned -- sometimes for up to two years. Ivory balls were liable to absorb moisture, lose their shape and had to be broken in carefully. Despite all this, demand for ivory balls surpassed that for wooden balls by the early 18th century.
In peak years, 12,000 elephants were slaughtered annually to supply Britain with billiard balls. The best balls were made from African ivory which was considered to be of more even density than Indian ivory.
Inconsistent density meant that a weight difference could occur even between a set of balls cut from the same tusk. This was considered so significant that balls were usually weighed before the start of an important match, this criteria being considered more important than the size, which could therefore vary within a "matched" set of balls.
As with any tooth, the elephant tusk had a nerve which ran hrough its centre. This resulted in a hole which could be quite significant in balls cut from near the base of a tusk. Because of this, only the small tusks of female elephants were considered suitable.
Holes created by the nerve would usually be plugged with ebony and become the "spot". Due to the general inconsistency of the spot ball and the tendency for it to "kick" when the ebony contacted the ivory of the object ball, it was considered to be a disadvantage to play with it.
In addition to these problems, the porous ivory could also change shape during the course of a game as it absorbed moisture from a humid atmosphere. It was therefore common to see players when shooting from the baulk, carefully placing their ball so that the "poles" of the central nerve were exactly horizontal. This would minimise the effects of any distortion.
During the latter part of the 19th century, a rush was on to find a replacement for ivory in billiards balls.
Table maker, Brunswick, in the USA even offered a US$10,000. American John Wesley Hyatt finally came upon the solution, celluloid, in 1866. Hyatt, upon spilling a bottle of collodion in his workshop, discovered that the material congealed into a tough, flexible film. He then produced billiard balls using collodian as a substitute for ivory.
Unfortunately, due to its highly volatile nature, the billiard balls would explode once they hit each other. The solution to this challenge was the addition of camphor, a derivative of the laurel tree. This addition made celluloid™ the first thermoplastic; it is a substance molded under heat and pressure into a shape it retains even after the heat and pressure has been removed. Celluloid went on to be used in the first flexible photographic film and also used in still and motion pictures. Hyatt has subsequently been credited with instigating the plastics industry.
The development of the plastics industry saw the introduction of several different compounds for billiards and snooker balls until the first cast phenolic resin balls were introduced in the 1950’s.
Modern balls are still made from improved cast phenolic compounds although some inferior balls are made from acetate but these do not have sufficient density and are prone to crack too easily.
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