Billiard balls to USA will mark British claim

07 April 2009

In this, the year that sees the 70th anniversary of Gone With The Wind, the most successful film of all time, the UK's Royal Society of Chemistry aims to wrest from the USA the title of inventors of celluloid, the film material which made cinema possible.

A box of billiard balls crossing the Atlantic next week will bear the British challenge to America. 

To underline its credentials to be the country that invented celluloid, the RSC is sending the bunch of billiard balls to the Chemistry Council of America. 

The Chemistry Council of America, for many years based in G.W.T.W. city of Atlanta, asserts that celluloid was invented accidentally in 1868 by American John Wesley Hyatt during an experiment to find a substitute for ivory used in billiard balls. 

The truth is that Englishman Alexander Parkes, of Birmingham, should bear the title of celluloid inventor. 

In 1866 he developed Parkesine, the first thermoplastic, celluloid based on nitrocellulose with ethanol solvent. 

His material was later developed in improved form a Xylonite by his associate, Daniel Spill, who brought a patent infringement lawsuit, unsuccessfully, against John Wesley Hyatt, who worked on of celluloid in the USA.  

In 1870 a judge ruled that it was Parkes who was the true inventor, due to his original experiments. 

A Royal Society of Chemistry spokesman said today: "The USA has a tremendous record of technological inventiveness, similar to the British, and we acknowledge the subsequent creative impulses that made possible the phenomenon of modern cinema, so much a product of America. Perhaps Gone With The Wind, released in 1939 was the supreme example of the global power of celluloid. 

"However, we do like to claim credit where it is due and in the case of celluloid it is down to English scientific brilliance. 

"The billiard ball accident story is entertaining but we should see beyond it to acknowledge the historical reality. When we have presented the full facts to them, the Chemistry Council of America will be completely snookered." 

"In the year that Gone with the Wind is celebrated for its wonders the Americans should yield up the celluloid title with good grace." 

The Royal Society of Chemistry, which is in regular contact with double Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, the sole surviving star of Gone With Then Wind, has asked the 92-year-old actress, who lives in Paris, to sign copies of the Margaret Mitchell book as part of a competition about the film which it plans to run later this year.

Contact and Further Information

Press Office
Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA
Tel: +44 (0)1223 432294
Fax: +44 (0)1223 426594