When Newark was Americas Celluloid Capital


Although the words plastics and New Jersey are often combined in a number of offensive ways, it should come as no surprise to readers of the INDICATOR, that this state took an early lead in the development of the plastics industry.  The first widely manufactured plastic was celluloid and one of the main production and research centers for this material was the city of Newark.


The story of celluloid and perhaps of all plastics began with a fortunate discovery in March of 1846.  The Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schonbein was the first to successfully nitrify cotton with a mixture of concentrated nitric and sulfuric acids.  Because the highly nitrified cotton was explosive it became known as gun cotton.  By publishing incomplete accounts of the research, Schonbein tried to keep the discovery a secret but within a few years every European power was attempting to exploit it for military use. 


But what really excited the civilian chemists was the fact that nitrated cellulose was soluble in any number of organic solvents.  The non-explosive moderately nitrated form of cellulose was known as pyroxylin.  A 1 to 5% solution of pyroxylin in a mixture of ether and ethyl alcohol produced a liquid that was named collodion.  When the solvent was evaporated, a thin film was left behind.  The first civilian application for nitrocellulose was proposed by J. Parker Maynard, a medical student in Boston.  In January of 1847 he applied a solution of nitrocellulose to wounds and surgical cuts (which must have been very painful if the solvent was an alcohol) but once the solvent had evaporated a tough, flexible dressing was left covering the wound.


The first widespread commercial application for collodion was in wet plate photography.  The photographer took a washed and chemically cleaned glass plate and coated it with a collodion solution of an halide such as bromine or iodine.  While still tacky, the plate was soaked in a solution of silver nitrate for five minutes.  Removed from the silver nitrate, it was loaded, still wet, into a light-proof plate holder which was then inserted into the camera.  After exposure, the glass plate was returned immediately to the darkroom and developed.  (Washing with Pyrogallic acid removed any un-reacted silver salts.)


Obviously this was a very cumbersome process and the glass plates were prone to breakage.  Over the next two decades a number of photographic chemists proposed dispensing with the wet plate and using a film of de-solvated collodion. 


However these films were prone to shrinkage and warping.  By the end of the 1860s chemists had discovered that camphor was an excellent solvent for pyroxylin.  Camphor improved the material immensely and when combined with castor, linseed, or other oils, made the material easier to mold.  In both Britain and the United States, collodion produced with camphor was used in a variety of applications including waterproof paper, fabric coatings, fake furs, varnish, collars, and cuffs. 


But to make pyroxylin into a true plastic required a true plasticizing agent.  Camphor would work well but a more effective way to mix it with the pyroxylin was needed.  John Wesley Hyatt, a printer from Albany, New York made the critical discovery while on a quest for the perfect billiard ball.


Billiards were big business in the 1800s.  Just about every affluent home had a billiard table and it was one of the most common forms of indoor recreation.  Most billiard balls were made of ivory.  Throughout the later years of the century manufacturers in both Europe and America fretted over the possibility that the elephant might become extinct.  Possibly because the Civil War was restricting imports, in 1863 a New York billiard equipment distributor announced a 10,000$ prize for an artificial ivory.


Hyatt took up the challenge.  While his first attempts at molding billiard balls from wood pulp and gum shellac failed, they did give him experience forming objects under a combination of heat and pressure.  This was the critical component, earlier inventors used heat to help work the solvents into the pyroxylin and then allowed them to evaporate.  Hyatt and his fellow printer James Brown applied heat and pressure to their mixture of camphor gum and pyroxylin.  It resulted in a durable, though sometimes flammable material. 


Hyatts patent number 105,338, dated July 12, 1870, described the process.  He explained that the camphor became a solvent for the pyroxylene during the molding process.  (Actually, the camphor formed a solid solution and acted as a plasticizing agent)  The pyroxylene would be mixed with water and ground into a pulp.  At this point, coloring agents or other additives might be added.  With the pulp still wet, finely pulverized gum camphor was added.  After another mixing cycle the excess water was drained off.  The material was then squeezed to remove additional water before being placed into a mold.  The mold was placed under pressure and heated at a temperature somewhere between 150 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit.  This was the essential step that allowed the camphor to permeate completely the entire pyroxylin matrix.  Released from the mold, the material had the consistency of thick leather.  Once the camphor at the surface had evaporated, the celluloid became hard.


The celluloid patent was issued to Hyatt and his brother Isaiah who coined the name celluloid.  What became of Brown is not recorded by historians.  John and Isaiah formed the Albany Dental Plate Company in 1870 and before long they had branched out into knife handles, piano keys, and assorted novelties.  The firm also supplied celluloid tubes, sheets, rods and blocks to other manufacturers.  With the backing of a group of New York financiers, John Wesley moved his operations to a five-story factory on Newarks Mechanic Street.  


The firm was renamed the Celluloid Manufacturing Company and it was decided that to concentrate on making unprocessed celluloid.  Other manufacturers turned it into harness trimmings, billiard balls, cuffs, collars, brushes, mirror backs, truss pads, napkin rings, and other flashy trinkets.  By March of 1880, some 16 firms had licenses to manufacture these and other articles.   Some historians estimate that as many as 40,000 items were made of celluloid.


The celluloid industry was very capital intensive and as a result only four companies in the United States and only one in Great Britain ever manufactured the material.  First tissue paper was fabricated from cotton textile scrap.  It had to be carefully treated with nitric and sulfuric acids lest the nitration reaction go too far and produce gun cotton.  The acids were washed out and the nitrated material was bleached with chlorine or potassium permanganate.  Dyes might also be added at this time.


The tissue paper was thus converted to pyroxylin.  Next it was powdered before being mixed with camphor.  After the mixing the material was dried by a process of pressing, blotting, and air-drying.  Finally it was pressed and masticated by steam-heated equipment.  An important property of celluloid was that it could be formed and molded just under 100c.


The company suffered a disastrous explosion and fire in 1875.  In Newark alone, over the next 36 years, there would be 39 fires and explosions causing nine deaths and 39 injuries.  Even Germanys first celluloid plant was destroyed by explosion and fire.  As a result, in Europe at least, restrictions were placed on celluloid manufacturing.


As dangerous as it was, celluloid was also lucrative.  Despite the 1875 fire, by 1879 the profits of Celluloid Manufacturing Company had reached 71,044$.  A year later the company stock was paying a 25% dividend and by the fall of 1881, its price was more 200$ per share.


The growth of the company fostered more innovation.  Hyatt and his assistant Charles Burroughs to build the worlds first injection molding machine in 1878.  Hyatts other notable invention was a lathe for turning perfectly spherical billiard balls, although it was soon used to produce ball bearings.  A large order from Oldsmobile jump-started the business and after 1900, the bearings produced on Hyatts lathes were a major automotive component.


In 1881 the Merchants Manufacturing Company was established.  It became the nations second most important producer of Celluloid.    In 1885 the company was renamed the Arlington Manufacturing Company when it built a new plant in Arlington, New Jersey, a town slightly north of Newark and on the east side of the Passaic River.  As near as the author can determine, the manufacturing plant was situated on the Hackensack Marshes.  Whether this was because the land was cheap or because the manufacturing process was dangerous, has yet to be determined.  The plant was in fact destroyed by an explosion and fire a few years after it opened, but the company survived and rebuilt the facility.   


Given the financial success of its producers, it might be supposed that after metals, wood, and ceramics, celluloid was the dominant material in manufacturing.  But production of natural rubber and Gutta Percha far exceeded celluloid.  Manufacturers also had the choice of many other materials including papier-mâché and a host of moldable formulations made from shellac, wood resins, sawdust or wood fibers.  Fancy goods continued to be made from horn, ivory, and tortoise shell.  Then in 1882, a chemist working for Hyatt made the discovery that opened up a huge new market for the material.  Celluloid was soluble in amyl acetate.  The solution could be spread into a thin layer and after the solvent evaporated, a stable, flexible film remained. 


It was the breakthrough for which photographers had waited decades but the Celluloid Manufacturing Company did not pursue it.  Rather, a Newark minister named Hannibal Goodwin took up the idea.  Goodwin was frustrated because the glass slide plates he used to illustrate Bible stories were constantly breaking.  He patented a process in 1887 whereby an emulsion could be made to stick to a flexible celluloid film.  Unfortunately for Goodwin, errors in the application delayed the patent process so that it was not issued until 1889.


Meanwhile in Rochester New York, George Eastman and his partner William Hill Walker had patented a roll-film holder in 1885.  It was used with light sensitive silver bromide-treated photographic paper but this system was short-lived.  The poor quality of the bromide photographs prevented serious photographers from adopting the process.  Eastman himself considered it as only a stepping-stone (albeit a very profitable one) on the route to true flexible-film photographic stock.  Eastmans chemist, Henry Reichenbach, patented a process identical to Goodwins in 1889.


It was George Eastmans shrewd decision to supply Thomas Edison with the first flexible motion picture film helped that secure him the credit for inventing photographic film.  Goodwins and Reichenbachs nearly simultaneous patents lead to a protracted dispute.  In 1914, the courts upheld Goodwins claims to priority and the settlement with Eastman made Goodwins widow a wealthy woman. 


As we have seen in a previous issue of the INDICATOR, Edward Weston of Newark, New Jersey, patented a process in 1882 where he treated celluloid with reducing agents and thereby rendered it non-flammable.  Weston named his new material Tamidine and used it for light bulb filaments.


Celluloids limitations were well known and it rarely achieved wide use except as an inexpensive substitute for more costly materials.  It was highly flammable but its reported tendency to explode must be regarded as a 19th century urban legend.  There is one much circulated account of how an exploding celluloid billiard ball in a Colorado saloon triggered a gunfight among the gamblers and cowboys.  But there are no other reliable accounts of any such occurrences.  On the other hand, there are reliable accounts of celluloid articles catching fire.  In one instance, a womans dress buttons ignited when she sat too close to a fireplace.  Movie producers knew celluloid was flammable and ultimately unstable.  Almost as soon as it was introduced, chemists began searching for an alternative film stock.

Today there are no companies manufacturing celluloid in the United States.  Cellulose acetate has replaced it for most applications.  Celluloid is still manufactured in Italy, China, and Japan.


Ironically, celluloid proved a poor choice for making billiard balls and Hyatt continued to search for the perfect material.  He shared many of his ideas and frustrations with the chemist Leo Baekeland.  Baekeland himself had invented a photographic film and its sale to Eastman made the chemist very wealthy.  With time on his hands and the means to pursue his own ideas, Baekeland would go on to invent the first true synthetic plastic resin, Bakelite.  In 1912, the Albany Billiard Ball Company, officially adapted Bakelite as the preferred resin for billiard ball manufacture.


Most of the material used in this essay was taken from Robert Friedels Pioneer Plastic, the Making and Selling of Celluloid, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wi., 1983 and from John T. Cunninghams, Newark Revised and Expanded Edition, New Jersey Historical Society, 1988.  Articles on Hyatt, Bakelite, and Weston can be found in the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2004.  Books about celluloid as well as a large collection of celluloid objects can be found in the Museum of the National Plastics Information Center in Leominster, Massachusetts, 978-537-9529