During the Civil War in the United States, the blockade imposed on Southerners made it impossible to import elephant ivory, from which billiard balls were manufactured. Furthermore, the intensive use of ivory threatened to drive elephants into extinction. Phelan & Collender of New York, which manufactured billiards equipment and was alarmed at the threat to its business, launched a competition with a $10,000 prize for whoever found a substitute for ivory (a prize that was never awarded as it turns out).
The American printer and amateur inventor John Wesley Hyatt began his experiments on cellulose nitrate in 1863 with the intention of winning this prize. In 1869, after many attempts, he managed to cover a billiard ball with collodion, a cellulose nitrate solution diluted in acetone or ether that leaves a cellulose film when the solvent evaporates. However, this material was too fragile to withstand the shocks of the billiard balls hitting against each other. In 1870, John and his brother Isaiah mixed cellulose nitrate and camphor and obtained celluloid. At the time, it was produced by grinding silk paper and mixing it with nitric and sulfuric acid. Cellulose nitrate was produced in this way and was then “plasticised” through the addition of camphor (extract of the camphor laurel), pigments and alcohol.
Alexander Parkes and Daniel Spill had already studied camphor in their first experiments, but it was the Hyatt brothers who recognised its true utility and its role in the creation of celluloid from cellulose nitrate. Isaiah marketed this new product under the name Celluloid in 1872.
The English inventor Spill then sued the Hyatt brothers, claiming to be the original inventor. Many court cases succeeded between 1877 and 1884 until finally it was recognised that the true inventor of the Celluloid was in fact Alexander Parkes and the judge authorised the continued operation of all celluloid factories, including the Hyatts’ Celluloid Manufacturing Company.