From Billiard Balls to Plastic Bottles

From Billiard Balls to Plastic Bottles

By: Berlin Packaging Specialist
Date: October 28, 2019

For centuries, ivory had been the standard for billiard balls. In the 1880’s, a dwindling supply of tusks and a billiard boom combined to create a worldwide supply crisis.

The country’s largest maker of billiard balls, Phelan and Collender, offered $10,000 in gold to anyone that could come up with a synthetic substitute to ivory.

All elephants were certainly breathing a sigh of relief!

However, it wasn’t until 1907 that Leo Baekeland, a Belgian inventor who made a bundle on inventing photo paper, hit upon the proper combination of phenols and formaldehyde. This first totally synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was impervious to heat, electricity, and acid. So, not only did it replace the billiard balls, but also for product in the auto, electric, and home goods industries (think ashtrays, rotary phone housings, toilet lids).

For those of us old enough to remember the rotary phone (I still have one for posterity), I can say that Bakelite is extremely tough material…if anyone has any of the original Bakelite balls, they are worth a fortune, sometimes selling for hundreds of dollars each.

Today, thermoset plastics, like Urea and Phenolic, are derivatives of Bakelite, and the versatility of this material laid the groundwork for all the plastics today that we earn our living selling at Berlin Packaging.