Hyatt, John Wesley (1837-1920) American Inventor, Plastics Industry (Scientist)

John Wesley Hyatt was a prodigious inventor best remembered for his development of celluloid, the first synthetic plastic. Along with his brothers, he was also an enterprising entrepreneur, establishing companies for the manufacture and marketing of all his major inventions. This combination of scientific inventiveness and business acumen helped launch the plastics industry, which radically transformed society in the 20th century by replacing natural materials with synthetic materials, thus conserving natural resources and saving money. Celluloid is best known as the material used for the thin sheets of film used in photography and cinematography, though celluloid’s flammability led to its replacement by other newly developed plastics in these and other applications.

Hyatt was born on November 28, 1837, in the small hamlet of Starkey, New York. At the age of 16, he moved to Illinois to become a printer. However, he did not remain in this profession, as his active mind turned to invention. He filed his first patent—for a knife sharpener— in 1861. In 1869, he patented a new method for making dominoes and draughts.

In the 1860s, the Phalen and Collender Company of New York announced a contest for identifying an inexpensive substitute for ivory suitable for making billiard balls. Although this challenge undoubtedly interested Hyatt, what enticed him more was the award: $10,000 in prize money. In collaboration with his brother, Isaac Smith Hyatt, he experimented with different combinations of materials in attempts to synthesize a substance that mimicked the traits of ivory.

In 1868, Hyatt happened upon the mixture of pyroxylin, a partially nitrated cellulose, with camphor, which he then heated under pressure. The result: a transparent, colorless, hard substance that seemed perfectly suited to the purpose of making billiard balls (among a host of other applications).

Ironically, Hyatt did not win the prize, even though his invention, celluloid, replaced ivory as the raw material in the billiard-ball manufacturing industry. Intent on reaping financial rewards from celluloid, he joined forces with his brothers (Charles was the third Hyatt brother) to found the Albany Billiard Ball Company in Albany, New York (where the brothers also ran the Albany Dental Plate Company and the Embossing Company). They also established the Celluloid Manufacturing Company to benefit from making the raw material of his discovery. In 1872, the brothers moved this company to Newark, New Jersey.

Celluloid lent itself to numerous commercial and industrial applications. For example, combs were manufactured at that time out of tortoise shells and animal bones—expensive materials. Bernard W. Doyle of Leominster, Massachusetts, founded the Viscoloid Corporation in 1900 to manufacture celluloid to supply the numerous comb-manufacturers in Leomin-ster, the center of comb-making in the United States (in 1925, the DuPont Company absorbed Viscoloid).

Perhaps the most famous application of celluloid was not developed until about 20 years after its discovery. Then, the burgeoning fields of photography and cinematography required thin film upon which to develop negatives; celluloid proved to be a perfect material, as it could readily be manufactured in sheet form. However, celluloid was also relatively flammable, a trait that led to its eventual replacement by other, newer synthetic materials. Ping-Pong balls are one of the few applications that still use celluloid.

Hyatt made many other inventions and developed them entrepreneurially. In the early 1880s, he innovated the Hyatt filter, which purified moving water chemically, and in 1881, he and his brothers established the Hyatt Pure Water Company. A decade later, he developed the Hyatt roller bearing, and in 1891 or 1892, the brothers founded the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company in Harrison, New York. In 1900, he invented a multiple-stitch sewing machine, capable of sewing 50 lock stitches simultaneously. Other inventions included a mill for converting by-products from cane sugar refining into fuel and a machine for straightening steel rods.

Throughout his career, Hyatt took out more than 200 patents, placing him beside Thomas Edison in the prodigious output of original ideas and applications. In 1914, the Society of Chemical Industry awarded Hyatt its Perkin Medal. Hyatt died on May 10, 1920, in Short Hills, New Jersey. Seven years later, his Celluloid Manufacturing Company was bought out by the Celanese Corporation, later known as Hoechst-Celanese, one of the largest U.S. manufacturers in the plastics industry that Hyatt helped to found.

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