Celluloids are a class of compounds created from nitrocellulose and camphor, with added dyes and other agents. Generally regarded to be the first thermoplastic, it was first created as Parkesine in 1862 and as Xylonite in 1869, before being registered as Celluloid in 1870. Celluloid is easily molded and shaped, and it was first widely used as an ivory replacement. Celluloid is highly flammable and also easily decomposes, and is no longer widely used. Its most common uses today are in table tennis balls and guitar picks.
Nitrocellulose-based plastics slightly predate celluloid. Collodion, invented in 1848 and used as a wound dressing and an emulsion for photographic plates, is dried to a celluloid-like film.
The first celluloid as a bulk material for forming objects was made in 1855 in Birmingham, England, by Alexander Parkes, who was never able to see his invention reach full fruition, after his firm went bankrupt due to scale-up costs. Parkes patented his discovery after realising a solid residue remained after evaporation of the solvent from photographic collodion.
Parkes patented it as a clothing waterproofer for woven fabrics in the same year. Later in 1862, Parkes showcased Parkesine at the Great Exhibition in London, where he was awarded a bronze medal for his efforts. The introduction of Parkesine is generally regarded as the birth of the plastics industry. Parkes mixed cellulose nitrate with camphor, producing a hard, flexible, and transparent material. Cellulose nitrate was dissolved in a small measure of solvent, which was then heated and rolled on a purpose-built machine that extracted a proportion of the solvent. Finally, the use of pressure or dyes completed the manufacturing process. In 1866, Parkes tried again with his invention, and he created the Parkesine Company to manufacture and market Parkesine, but this failed in 1868 after trying to cut costs to enable further manufacture. Early Parkesine Company employee Daniel Spill would go on to play a later role in the history of celluloid (see below).
In the 1860s, an American, John Wesley Hyatt, acquired Parkes's patent and began experimenting with cellulose nitrate with the intention of manufacturing billiard balls, which until that time were made from ivory. He used cloth, ivory dust, and shellac, and on April 6, 1869, patented a method of covering billiard balls with the addition of collodion. With assistance from Peter Kinnear and other investors,Hyatt formed the Albany Billiard Ball Company (1868–1986) in Albany, New York, to manufacture the product. In 1870, John and his brother Isaiah patented a process of making a "horn-like material" with the inclusion of cellulose nitrate and camphor. Alexander Parkes and Daniel Spill (see below) listed camphor during their earlier experiments, calling the resultant mix "xylonite", but it was the Hyatt brothers who recognized the value of camphor and its use as a plasticizer for cellulose nitrate. Isaiah Hyatt dubbed his material "celluloid" in 1872.
English inventor Daniel Spill had worked with Parkes and formed the Xylonite Co. to take over Parkes' patents, describing the new plastic products as Xylonite. He took exception to the Hyatts' claims and pursued the brothers in a number of court cases between 1877 and 1884. Initially the judge found in Spill's favour, but ultimately it was judged that neither party held an exclusive claim and the true inventor of celluloid/xylonite was Alexander Parkes, due to his mention of camphor in his earlier experiments and patents. The judge ruled all manufacturing of celluloid could continue both in Spill's British Xylonite Company and Hyatts' Celluloid Manufacturing Company.
The name Celluloid actually began as a trademark of the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, first of Albany, NY, and later of Newark, New Jersey, which manufactured the celluloids patented by John Wesley Hyatt. Hyatt used heat and pressure to simplify the manufacture of these compounds. Over the years, celluloid has become the normal term used for this type of plastic. In 1878 Hyatt was able to patent a process for injection moulding thermoplastics, although it took another 50 years before it could be realised commercially, and in later years celluloid was used as the base for photographic film.
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English photographer John Carbutt founded the Keystone Dry Plate Works in 1879 with the intention of producing gelatin dry plates. The Celluloid Manufacturing Company was contracted for this work by means of thinly slicing layers out of celluloid blocks and then removing the slice marks with heated pressure plates. After this, the celluloid strips were coated with a photosensitive gelatin emulsion. It is not certain exactly how long it took for Carbutt to standardize his process, but it occurred no later than 1888. A 15-inch-wide (380 mm) sheet of Carbutt's film was used by William Dickson for the early Edison motion picture experiments on a cylinder drum Kinetograph. However, the celluloid film base produced by this means was still considered too stiff for the needs of motion picture photography.
By 1889, more flexible celluloids for photographic film were developed, and both Hannibal Goodwin and the Eastman Kodak Company obtained patents for a film product (Ansco, which purchased Goodwin's patent when he died, was eventually successful in an infringement suit against Kodak). This ability to produce photographic images on a flexible material (as opposed to a glass or metal plate) was a crucial step toward the advent of motion pictures.
Celluloid was useful for creating cheaper jewellery, jewellery boxes, hair accessories and many items that would earlier have been manufactured from ivory, horn or other expensive animal products. It was often referred to as "Ivorine" or "French Ivory". It was also used for dressing table sets, dolls, picture frames, charms, hat pins, buttons, buckles, stringed instrument parts, accordions, fountain pens, cutlery handles and kitchen items. The main disadvantages the material had were that it was flammable and fragile. Items made in celluloid are collectible today and increasingly rare in good condition. It was soon overtaken by the more robust Bakelite and Catalin. Celluloid remains in use for decorative borders and inlays on Indian Sitars. Table tennis balls are also made from celluloid.
A typical formulation of celluloid might contain 70 to 80 parts nitrocellulose, nitrated to 11% nitrogen, 30 parts camphor, 0 to 14 parts dye, 1 to 5 parts ethyl alcohol, plus stabilizers and other agents to increase stability and reduce flammability.
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