Albany Billiard Balls

One man’s search for a better billiard ball paved the way for early plastics manufacturing, and Albany is where it began. In 1863 a young printer named John Wesley Hyatt responded to a challenge by New York billiard table manufacturers Phelan & Collender. The company offered $10,000 to anyone who could make a successful substitute for ivory billiard balls. Ivory had been the traditional material, but as it aged and dried the balls often cracked and became distorted in shape. Hyatt had earlier worked with a material called collodion, a solution of nitrocellulose dissolved in alcohol, which he discovered solidified into a hard material. When mixed with camphor, a compound called celluloid could be pressed in a mold to make billiard balls. Instead of taking the $10,000, Hyatt started his own company in 1868, the Hyatt Manufacturing Company, which not only made billiard balls but also dominoes, checkers, and even dentures.

In 1875, the Scottish immigrant Peter Kinnear took over the billiard ball manufacturing business and changed the name to Albany Billiard Ball Company. At the time, the factory was located on the southeast corner of Grand and Plain Streets in Albany (now under the South Mall Arterial). Kinnear and others encountered one major problem: celluloid tended to explode into flames. Fortunately, another early plastic developed by Hyatt, called bonsilate, was better suited for billiard balls. Made from finely ground bone and sodium silicate, bonsilate was sturdier than celluloid, held color better, and did not burst into flames. Kinnear quickly adopted the composition as the primary material for his billiard balls.

By the early twentieth century Albany Billiard Ball Company relocated from its downtown operation to a larger factory on the corner of Delaware Avenue and Whitehall Road. It remained in business until the 1980s.

 

Magnifying Glass
Billiard Balls
Manufactured by Albany Billiard Ball Company, Albany, New York
1930-1940
Composition balls in original box
Albany Institute of History & Art, gift of Mrs. Richard C. Rockwell, 1994.45.8
Albany Billiard Ball Packing Room
Photograph by S. Schreiber, Jr.
c. 1910
Gelatin silver photographic print on card
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ser 16, box 2, num 58