Billiard & Snooker Balls

Biliard & Snooker Balls

(Some additional pictures and information have been added to Norman's original article. The additional information is shown in italics)

In previous articles we have traced the development of the billiard table from the early models with wooden beds and stuffed cushions, and we have traced the development of the billiard cue, from the original mace to the present day billiard cue, and we have also referred to the introduction of leather cue tips etc,. Now we look back at the development of the balls, which are such an important requirement for all the games played on billiard tables.

Going back to the earliest writings, you will remember that a certain Irish King called Cathire More, who died in the year A.D. 148 left behind 50 billiard balls of brass,. Such balls could hardly have been satisfactory, even when the game was played out-of-doors on the ground, as they would be too heavy (unless perhaps they were hollow like the Pawn Brokers Balls of Mr Kew!) and they would also be liable to impact damage. Actually there can be little doubt that the original balls were made of hardwood, which like all timbers would be liable to splitting/swelling and shrinking and therefore never very true, but of course they would be quite cheap to replace at frequent intervals.

The following information was not include in original article and has been add. Ivory ball turning must have been a very skilled job as shown by the following copy of Apprentice Indenture between the Manchester Billiard firm Orme & Son and Joseph Nuttall in 1888. Which sets out his pay and conditions for the first year through to the seventh!

Ivory Billiard Ball Turner

Ivory Billiard Ball Turner Ormes & Sons

Interestingly when Thurston's took control of the Belgium firm of Van Laere there were still partially turned ivory balls in the factory together with a French lathe for turning them (a similar lathe, found in Ashcroft's is in the collection). The manager of Van Laere passed on the information that to produce the best Billiard Balls (European Billiards in his case), the balls should be turn significantly oversize and left for a period of 6/12 months. Then they would be turned again and left and eventually they would be turned to the finished size with the whole process taking a number of years.

Originally only two balls were required for the game of billiards (see the etching of Mozart). According to John Roberts Senior in his book "Roberts on Billiards", published in 1868, he states that within the memory of several distinguished players still living the red ball was introduced, and in the same book he later stats that the red ball came into use …. "shortly before the opening of the present century" ….. (i.e. the late 1700's) and this fact is indeed confirmed by C. Dawson, the author of "Practical Billiards", who states that the red ball was introduced about 1795.

Mozart at his Billiard table

Mozart from an etching by Batt - Note only two balls and hoop on table, also a mace

I have not been able to ascertain when ivory balls were first used, but with their beautiful appearance and pleasant clicking sound on impact with each other, they must have been a great improvement. Nevertheless, ivory balls themselves were far from the perfect, it will be readily understood that ivory being an animal product (as distinct from a man made synthetic product) must vary in texture and density from animal to animal. There is a distinct "grain" in ivory, and like the teeth of all mammals, there is a nerve running through the centre of the tusk.

Spot White BIlliard Ball

Ivory spot white - the nerve position is used for the 'spot' and this

ball clearly shows the 'end grain' cracks

In many ways the characteristics of ivory are similar to timber - there is an "end grain", of which the nerve is the centre and a "side grain" - and just like timber in dry conditions ivory will shrink and crack sideways onto the grain, but will swell in damp situations. This shrinking and/or swelling only takes place sideways to the grain and not end wise - therefore ivory backs were hardly ever perfect spheres, and required constant readjusting. As all ivory is white the red ball (and later the colours when life pool and snooker were introduced) must be stained, and again like timbers the stain penetrates and is soaked in on the end grain (i.e. around the nerve of the tusk), but would only stain the surface of the side grain - from which in play the stain used to wear, leaving the red ball with a "piebald" appearance.

Large Ivory Elephant Tusks

Picture from World of Billiards 1901

 Ivory Pyramid,Life Pool & Billiard Balls
Picture shows a boxed set of Billiard, Life Pool and Pyramid Balls

In order to reduce these problems ivory had to be seasoned before making it into billiard balls - John Roberts Senior, in his book published in 1868 states ….. "Probably more difficulty is experienced obtaining well seasoned balls (ivory) than any other article connected with billiard. They cut from the points of African Elephants tusks females preferred (see the illustration). They must be kept dry for 12 months before condition is obtained - heat shrinks them greatly, and new balls crack in a single night when allowed to remain near a fire" .…

Elephant Tusk

Another writer Major General A.W. Drayson in his book "billiards", published 1895 states …. "It is very difficult to obtain 3 balls which are perfectly true and of the same weight" ….. and he remarks that ivory varies in both weight and elasticity.

In view of all the problems associated with ivory billiard balls, it was the usual practice to test the balls for size and weight in full view of the spectators before important matches commenced, and readers will be interest to see the accompanying photograph showing the vernier gauge (engraved with John Thurstons name and Catherine Street address) and therefore about 150 years old), also the ring gauge for testing minimum size 2.1/16 inches and maximum size of 2.3/32 inches together with the balance scales for ensuring equal weight of balls. These last two items being regularly used at Thurstons Leicester Square Match Hall, until the late 1920's.

Thurston Match Room Scales etc.

A few facts and figures may also be of interest to our readers - the accompanying photograph shows a member of the Burroughs family of the old Burroughs & Watts Company reclining on a stack containing some 20,000 billiard balls, note the publication date of January 1911, and the value at that time of £16,000, to allow for inflation from 1911 to 1982, for todays value you would need to multiply by a factor of 35 or perhaps even 40, note also just for this one Company alone, one years requirements of ivory balls involved the killing of 1140 elephants and there were quite a large number of Billiard Table Makers existing at that period of time all selling ivory balls.

Rough Turned Ivory Billaird Balls

According to the figures published in the Encyclopaedia Britannica large shipments of ivory for the making of billiard balls were imported through both Liverpool and London. In 1827 through the Port of London alone 3,000 cwt (approx 150 metric tonne) arrived, but by the year 1890 this had increased to 15,000 cwt, but from then on the invention of the Composition Ball, the quantity slowly declined, it is on record that at the peak of demand considering the total arrivals of ivory through all the Ports for the making of billiard balls (and also for life pool and snooker balls during the late 19th and early 20th centuries) by the many Billiard Manufacturing Companies involved, just to supply the United Kingdom alone, required the slaughter of some 12,000 elephants in one year, and it must be remembered that the three ball game was also popular throughout Europe, the USA and the British Colonies. With the present day popularity of the 22 balls snooker and 16 ball pool the elephants must be very pleased that in 1868 a Mr. Hyatt, of Albany, New York State, USA, invented the Composition Ball.

In order to try and overcome some of the unsatisfactory characteristics of ivory by sealing the grain a Mr. E. Roese, under patent number 5413 dated 19th April 1886, registered a process for coating ivory balls with a mixture containing an alcoholic solution of Copal varnish together with a solution of celluloid in ether and collodin with or without the addition of colouring matter. A set of ivory balls coated in this manner can be seen in the Billiard & Snooker Heritage Collection in Liverpool.

Coated ivory Billiard ball

Coated red billiard ball

Coat Billiard Ball Patent

Roese's patent as listed

Many well known writers including Riso Levi and Major Broadfoot refer at length to the difficulty of obtaining good evenly matched ivory balls, which due to variations in density and elasticity were sometimes referred to as "wide angle ivories" or "narrow angle ivories", problems which with the introduction of Composition Balls do not trouble the players of today.

The history and development of the modern Composition Billiards and Snooker Balls is an interesting story in itself, covering a period of time in excess of 100 years, and is mainly concerned with the work of a Mr. Peter Kinnear and Mr. John Wesley Hyatt.

Sometime during the early 1860's Peter Kinnear left his native Scotland and settled in Albany, in New York State, about 150 miles from the city of New York, and it was here that he set to work to find a substitute for ivory, which was becoming very scarce and consequently very expensive.

Kinnear - presumably as a matter of chance (as he was a recent immigrant in USA) formed a friendship with Mr. John Wesley Hyatt - a Chemist and Inventor and together they worked to discover a substitute for ivory, possibly inspired by a prize of $10,000 (ten thousand US dollars) offered by Phelan and Collender (later called Brunswick-Balke and Collender and now today simply called Brunswick), to anybody who could produce such a substitute.

John Wesley Hyatt

John Wesley Hyatt

The problem was solved by Hyatt who discovered the chemical called Cellulose Nitrate - which when combined with Camphor, became known as Celluloid. This was in fact the first modern plastic and Hyatt is recognised as the father of the present day plastics industry and so he must rank history with all other Great Inventors.

Report on Composition Billiard Balls

There is no evidence that he accepted the $10,000 prize indeed, it would seem likely that he decided to retain the patent rights himself. The invention was made in 1868 and the patent was registered in 1869, and the following year he established the Hyatt Manufacturing Company at Albany, which was soon renamed the Albany Billiard Ball Company, and is today still manufacturing balls in the USA. The Hyatt ball was sold in the United Kingdom towards the end of the 19th century, under the name of "Bonzoline". These balls were compression mouldings, produced under very great pressure and then cured before turning, grinding and polishing.

The Albany Company employed three brothers as foremen and in 1900 one of them George Birt, left the Albany Company and came to England were he met Mr. Percy Warnford-Davis and in 1901 they commenced the production of a similar ball with the Cellulose Nitrate Base which was marketed under the name of "Crystalate". They were compression moulded as shown in the picture. Then cut apart and ground to size.

Rod of Crystalate Billiard Balls

It should also be noted that a Mr. Alexander Parkes, working in England also invented "Celluloid" independently at the same time (vide the publication entitled "The First Century of Plastics - Celluolid and its Sequel") but his patents were not used commercially until 1877.

In 1909 the Endolithic Company Ltd, who were marketing the Crystalate Ball and E. J. Riley Ltd of Accrington - arranged for the sensational young Australian Billiard Player, George Gray to visit the United Kingdom. He had been using the Crystalate Ball and with this ball he made a great series of the largest breaks ever achieved on a billiards table, and so established the reputation of the Crystalate Composition Ball - even so - as the history of the development of the billiard table and accessories clearly shows,whenever an improvement is introduced the best amateur and professional players vigorously resisted the adoption of the Composition Balls for another 18/20 years.

Crystalate Billiard Ball Box Lid

Internal Billiard Ball Box

The above pictures show the top of an early Crystalate Billiard Ball Box and the inside of the lid, from the wording it shows that they were still being compared to ivory.

In 1912 the Endolithic Company Ltd, made arrangements with Albany for the join marketing of the balls - the Bonzoline being made in the USA, and the Crystalate being made at Tonbridge in Kent. Later after World War I, during 1931, the Composition Billiard Ball Supply Co. Ltd, was formed and both balls were made at Stratford in London.

The following pictures are of pages taken from a Thurston catalogue circa 1910 and are of interest concerning the ivory / composition ball debate. The second page has reference to the problems with ivory 'holding their shape' and that Bonzoline balls had advantages for games of Pool and Pyramids.

Thurston Billiard catalogue
Thurston Ivory Billiard Balls


There was however strong - one might say "violent" opposition to the adoption of Composition Balls by the well known professional players of the early 20th century (just as there had been to rubber cushioning and other improvements). This situation is constantly drawn to your attention by reading any of the books on billiards published during this period, and so I quote from one book only entitled "Billiards in 20th Century" by Riso Levi, published 1930/31, the following extracts taken from Chapter VIII.

"As most readers are aware I have for many years stressed the superiority of Composition Balls for billiards - firstly by reason of the Homogenity - they run beautifully true, whilst even selected ivories are frequently not dependable, even when quite new ….. when many years ago I first began advocating the use of Composition Balls, I was looked upon as a visionary and a dreamer …. more than one professional of note commented on what I had written in words which are not quite printable" …..

He laughs last however, and in 1926 I had the satisfaction of seeing the Amateur Championship played with Composition Balls, and in July 1928, the B.A.C.C. (Billiards Association & Control Council) decided that future professional championships must be played with Compositions" ……

"Only a few years ago every British Professional of note was dead against the use of Composition Balls. This was not surprising because with the exception of Smith (Willie) all our great cue men learned their billiards with ivory balls. Smith used Composition Balls until he became a professional in 1911. In time he became quite used to ivories - never made the mistake of pretending as so many of our cue men did that better billiards could be played with ivories".

Smith however probably considered it good policy in 1919 to maintain that the ivory ball was the only ball for professionals, as in those days he was afraid of no one when playing with ivories, whereas he might not have been able to vanquish allcomers with Composition Balls. In 1924 in a London Sporting Paper of March 29th he said - "I can say at once and without the slightest reservation that any attempt to put Composition Balls on the table for a Championship game will have unrelenting opposition".

However he had the foresight and also the courage to admit he had been wrong, when in the Sunday Chronicle of 19th February 1928 he said - "To my brother Professionals I would say let us get together and decide on a unanimous change to Composition Balls for next season and don't let professional billiards die a natural death".

Meanwhile at Ludwigshafen in Germany, the large Chemical Co,. RASHIG GmbH began producing an entirely different ball with a phenol formaldehyde base - this was a "Resin Casting" - each ball being separately cast in glass mould - cured and then extracted by breaking the mould off the ball rather like shelling a hard boiled egg! The ball is then turned and finished on a centraless grinder and finally polished in the same manner as the original Bonzoline and Crystalate Balls. This Cast Resin Ball was slightly lighter in weight having a density of 1.7 as compared to the density of the original ball of 1.87, but it had beautiful bright colours and very attractive appearance.

Resin Super Crystalate

Resin Ball cast in glass mould

The work of developing this new type of Cast Resin Ball was a closely guarded secret, carried out by a brilliant German Chemist named Doctor Koebner. In 1937 Mr. Darryl Warnford-Davis of the Composition Billiard Ball Supply Co, who was advised by Mr. Ronald Kinnear (grandson of the original Peter Kinnear) that Doctor Koebner, who was a Jew - was in England and wanted to stay here to escape from Hitlers Germany and the persecution of the Jewish People. With some considerable difficulty, in view of the pre-war situation, permission for him to stay and work with the Composition Billiard Ball Supply Co. Ltd, was obtained, and he worked with the Company until his death in 1949, producing a similar ball marketed under the name "Vitalite".

In return for the information about Doctor Koebner's presence in London, it was agreed to share the knowledge of how to manufacture the Cast Resin Ball with the Albany Ball Co, - this promise was kept, and so this type of ball is now also made by Albany in USA.

Since the end of World War II the same type of ball has also been made in Belgium and marketed under the name of "Aramith". As the materials for the original Cellulose Nitrate based ball became more difficult to obtain, experimental work on the Cast Resin Ball now produced the modern "Super Crystalate" Balls, with their bright attractive colours and a specific gravity almost equal to the old Crystalate. At the same time the Belgium Ball Manufacturers had improved their product to achieve the required density, which is now being marketed in the United Kingdom as the "Tournament Champion" Ball. Both these modern Cast Resin Balls are made to extremely close tolerances for both sizes and specific gravity.

Tournament Champion Snooker Balls

Thus the equipment for playing the games of billiards and snooker has reached a very high degree of perfection, which must have made possible the very great and skilful performances of our present day players. There must however always be room for further improvement in the equipment of all games of skill, otherwise we have reached the "end of the road", yet believe it or not all improvements are vigorously resisted by existing players.

More additions to Norman's article :-

As The first experiments in replacement material used of compressed Nitrocellulose (gun cotton) coated in Celluloid. This is quite a flammable combination and there are stories, from the U.S.A., of these balls 'exploding' into flames and the 'cowboys thinking they were being shot out then pulling out the guns looking for the threat!!! In 2011 BBC Scotland approached the "Collection" to borrow an Ivory Billiards Ball set. They were making a programme on the development of celluloid and similar early materials. As they said in their email -"As part of our introduction to Celluloid and the start of synthetic polymers (plastics) we would like to bring up the story about ivory becoming increasingly scarce and need to find a replacement which lead to celluloid (John Wesley Hyatt) and then to Bakelite. For this we would really like to be able to show ivory balls compared to the celluloid billiard balls we will be making"

So we happily loaned them a set of ivory billiard balls and after Dr. Mark Miodownik, a material scientist from Kings College, London, made the Celluloid Nitrocellulose balls for the programme and the BBC very kindly gave the Collection one of the balls produced. They also warned -"please keep away from flames"!!

This ball is as pictured below and has also be filmed being held by Steve Davis for an section on the history of Snooker (Billiards) shown during the 2013 World Snooker Championship.

BBC made Celluloid Nitocellulose Billiad Ball

The Ball is a dark purple colour rather like the purple of a Snooker Plus ball

"The next article in this series will deal with billiard table lighting, from oil lamps to electricity."


© E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. 2009 - All items displayed are from the N. Clare collection. reproduction of article allowed only with permission from E.A. Clare & Son Ltd.

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