A History of Pool Balls and What They Are Made of

History of Pool, Billiard Ball Progression, John Wesley Hyatt, pocket billiards
"Modern" pool balls are now rather old in pool history. Photo courtesy of InsidePool.com

If you've ever played pool or billiards, you may have wondered what the balls are made of. People have been playing variations of pool and other cue sports since at least the 16th century. And while the game has changed dramatically over time, it wasn't until the 1920s that pool balls evolved as well. Before then, the balls were made of wood or ivory.

The Roots of Pool and Pool Balls

Historians can't say for certain when the first game of pool or pocket billiards was played. Documents describe a lawn game played by French nobility in the 1340s that was like a mix of billiards and croquet. By the early 1700s, the game had evolved considerably, though it remained largely the pursuit of French and British nobility. Pool was now an indoor game played on a table, using cue sticks to knock balls into the table's pockets.

The earliest pool balls were made of wood, which was fairly inexpensive to produce. But as Europeans began to colonize Africa and Asia, they developed a taste for exotic materials from foreign lands. Irovy from elephant tusks became popular among the upper classes of the 17th century as a way to display one's wealth conspicuously, whether fashioned into a walking stick, the keys of a piano, or the balls of a billiard table.

"Ivories," as they were sometimes called, were far more beautiful than wooden pool balls and far more exclusive, especially in the 17th century. But they weren't indestructible. Ivory pool balls were prone to yellowing with age and tended to crack in humid climates or if struck with excessive force. As pool continued to grow in popularity through the first half of the 1800s, the demand for tusks began to seriously threaten elephant populations in Africa and Asia.

A New Kind of Billiard Ball

In 1869, with the popularity of pool climbing along with the cost of ivory, pool table maker Phelan and Collender decided to challenge its customers by offering $10,000 to anyone who could invent a non-ivory pool ball. The ad caught the eye of John Wesley Hyatt, an Albany, N.Y., inventor

Hyatt combined camphor with alcohol and nitrocellulose, molding it into a spherical shape under extreme pressure. The finished product didn't win Hyatt the $10,000 prize, but his creation is considered to be one of the first synthetic plastics. Over the following years, he would continue to refine the celluloid billiard balls, but it remained a poor substitute for ivory because it was nowhere near as durable. What's worse, nitrocellulose wasn't a particularly stable substance, and on rare occasion, according to Hyatt, pool balls would explode with struck with force.

In 1907, American chemist Phelan Leo Baekeland invented a new plastic-like substance called Bakelite. Unlike Hyatt's pool balls, balls made of Bakelite were durable, easy to produce, and didn't carry the risk of blowing up the game. By the mid-1920s, the majority of pool balls were being made out of Bakelite. Today's pool balls are usually made of acrylic or plastic resins, which are extremely durable and can be milled to exacting standards.