John Wesley

Hyatt

Inducted 1974

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John Wesley Hyatt was an American manufacturer in the plastics field, and the inventor of celluloid. Hyatt was born in Starkey, New York in 1837. At the age of sixteen, Hyatt began work as a printer in Illinois and later in Albany, New York, where billiard ball maker Phelan & Collander was offering a $10,000 reward for a suitable substitute for ivory. The growing shortage of ivory was threatening their billiard ball business. Hyatt spent several years in the search for such a material, and while there is no evidence that the prize was ever awarded, Hyatt patented his invention and eventually set up his own manufacturing company, which became the Albany Billiard Ball Company. Hyatt’s first 1869 patent (U.S. patent #88,633) described a molding composition composed of fibrous materials and gum shellac or other solid fusible adhesive gum; the result intended to imitate ivory. A second patent (U.S. patent #88,634) improved the process for making billiard balls by having them dipped in a solution of colored collodion.

In his experiments with pyroxylin, a partially nitrated cellulose, Hyatt discovered the solvent action of camphor on cellulose nitrate under moderate heat and pressure, creating celluloid which he and his brother Isaiah patented in 1870 as “Improvement in Treating and Molding Pyroxylin” (U.S. patent #105,338). Hyatt also developed, working with inventor Charles Burroughs, the necessary machinery for working his new material. In his lifetime, he developed more than 200 patents for material formulations, processes and machinery.

One of the first uses of the new plastics material was for making denture plates. Hyatt formed the Albany Dental Plate Company in 1870. In 1872 its name was changed to the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, and in 1873 the company moved to in Newark, New Jersey. Celluloid became popular for many products, including shirt collars, combs, toys, and babies’ rattles. Celluloid was also used as a substrate for photographic film and as the center layer in sandwich-type safety glass for automobile windscreens. Celluloid is still used today for a limited number of products including table-tennis balls, but it has mostly been replaced by newer synthetic materials.

In 1914 Hyatt was awarded the Perkin Gold Medal by the Society of the Chemical Industry. Hyatt’s photograph has become the face of the Plastics Academy “Plastics Hall of Fame”, as the individual who is credited for establishing the plastics industry.

Areas of Expertise:

Plastic materials, management

Related Links:

Luth, Harold J. “A Game that Founded an Industry”, Modern
Plastics 20:11, p. 71-73, p. 126-128 (July 1943).
Meikle, Jeffrey L. American Plastic: A Cultural History,
New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, p. 10-30 (1995).
John Wesley Hyatt Papers at Syracuse University Library

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