This New York Times dispatch is more than a hundred and fifty years old, and yet it sounds surprisingly modern: elephants, the paper warned in 1867, were in grave danger of being "numbered with extinct species" because of humans' insatiable demand for the ivory in their tusks. Ivory, at the time, was used for all manner of things, from buttonhooks to boxes, piano keys to combs. But one of the biggest uses was for billiard balls. Billiards had come to captivate upper-crust society in the United States as well as in Europe. Every estate, every mansion had a billiards table, and by the mid-1800s, there was growing concern that there would soon be no more elephants left to keep the game tables stocked with balls. The situation was most dire in Ceylon, source of the ivory that made the best billiard balls. There, in the northern part of the island, the Times reported, "upon the reward of a few shillings per head being offered by the authorities, 3,500 pachyderms were dispatched in less than three years by the natives." All told, at least one million pounds of ivory were consumed each year, sparking fears of an ivory shortage. "Long before the elephants are no more and the mammoths used up," the Times hoped, "an adequate substitute may [be] found."
Ivory wasn't the only item in nature's vast larder that was starting to run low. The hawksbill turtle, that unhappy supplier of the shell used to fashion combs, was becoming scarcer. Even cattle horn, another natural plastic that had been used by American comb makers since before the Revolutionary War, was becoming less available as ranchers stopped dehorning their cattle.
In 1863, so the story goes, a New York billiards supplier ran a newspaper ad offering "a handsome fortune," ten thousand dollars in gold, to anyone who could come up with a suitable alternative for ivory. John Wesley Hyatt, a young journeyman printer in Upstate New York, read the ad and decided he could do it. Hyatt had no formal training in chemistry, but he did have a knack for invention—at the age of twenty-three, he'd patented a knife sharpener. Setting up in a shack behind his home, he began experimenting with various combinations of solvents and a doughy mixture made of nitric acid and cotton. (That nitric acid–cotton combination, called guncotton, was daunting to work with because it was highly flammable, even explosive. For a while it was used as a substitute for gunpowder until producers of it got tired of having their factories blow up.)
As he worked in his homemade lab, Hyatt was building on decades of invention and innovation that had been spurred not only by the limited quantities of natural materials but also by their physical limitations. The Victorian era was fascinated with natural plastics such as rubber and shellac. As historian Robert Friedel pointed out, they saw in these substances the first hints of ways to transcend the vexing limits of wood and iron and glass. Here were materials that were malleable but also amenable to being hardened into a final manufactured form. In an era already being rapidly transformed by industrialization, that was an alluring combination of qualities—one hearkening to both the solid past and the tantalizingly fluid future. Nineteenth-century patent books are filled with inventions involving combinations of cork, sawdust, rubbers, and gums, even blood and milk protein, all designed to yield materials that had some of the qualities we now ascribe to plastic. These plastic prototypes found their way into a few decorative items, such as daguerreotype cases, but they were really only intimations of things to come. The noun plastic had not yet been coined—and wouldn't be until the early twentieth century—but we were already dreaming in plastic.
Hyatt's breakthrough came in 1869. After years of trial and error, Hyatt ran an experiment that yielded a whitish material that had "the consistency of shoe leather" but the capacity to do much more than sole a pair of shoes. This was a malleable substance that could be made as hard as horn. It shrugged off water and oils. It could be molded into a shape or pressed paper-thin and then cut or sawed into usable forms. It was created from a natural polymer—the cellulose in the cotton—but had a versatility none of the known natural plastics possessed. Hyatt's brother Isaiah, a born marketer, dubbed the new material celluloid, meaning "like cellulose."