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John Wesley Hyatt

inventor of Celluloid

John Wesley Hyatt

John Wesley Hyatt was born in Starkey, New York, on November 28, 1837. At the age of 16 he went to work for a printer in Illinois who produced game boards and game pieces. After patenting a knife sharpener in 1861, Hyatt was able to start his own company in Albany, New York, making checkers and dominoes.

Looking for a cheap substitute for ivory, then a traditional material for the making of game pieces, Hyatt began experimenting with a cellulose-based compound that had been developed in England by Alexander Parkes. Further spurred by an offer of $10,000 from the New York firm of Phelan & Collender for the best ivory substitute for making billiard balls, Hyatt improved Parkes' compound by adding camphor. The result was a plastic compound that was easy to mold under mild heat and pressure, and that, when cooled, became hard, strong, and easy to color. And, even better, it was cheap to produce. Although he never received the promised prize (nor did anyone else for that matter), Hyatt subsequently patented his compound, which he named Celluloid, in 1869; he also developed and patented much of the machinery necessary for making Celluloid, something that Parkes had failed to do with his compound.

Hyatt ultimately founded the Celluloid Manufacturing Company to manufacture and market Celluloid. The product proved so successful that what was once a brand name is now considered a generic name. It has been used to make everything from eyeglass frames to dentures, combs and buttons to piano keys, and, of course, billiard balls; in fact, just about anything that was once made from ivory.

In addition to celluloid, Hyatt ultimately received more than 200 patents for a wide range of inventions. In 1891 he invented a ball bearing that is still used in industrial machinery today. He also invented the Hyatt Filter, a water purification device that separated solid particles from water by directing the water through a porous filtration substance of either sand or charcoal, which is very similar to today's home filtration systems.

In 1914, Hyatt received the Perkin Medal of Honor from the Society of Chemical Industry for his work with celluloid. He died on May 10, 1920.

Alexander Parkes

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This page was last updated on June 15, 2017.