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Celluloid is the name of a class of compounds created from nitrocellulose and camphor, plus dyes and other agents, generally regarded to be the first thermoplastic. Easily molded and shaped, there are suggestions that celluloid was first made as an ivory replacement. Celluloid is highly flammable and also easily decomposes, and is no longer widely used.

Nitrocellulose-based plastics slightly predate celluloid: collodion, invented in 1848 and used as a wound dressing and emulsion for photographic plates, dried to a celluloid-like film.

However, the first celluloid as a bulk material for forming objects was made in 1856 in Birmingham England by Alexander Parkes, but he was never able to see his invention reach full fruition.

Parkes patented his discovery, describing it as a "hard, horny elastic and waterproof substance" and he tried to market it as a clothing waterproof but after trying to cut costs to enable further manufacture he failed. Later in 1896, Parkes showcased Parkesine at the Great Exhibition in London.

One year after Parkesine failed one of his workers, Daniel Spill, created the Xylonite Company in Birmingham, to design and market a similar product to Parkesine. This failed and in 1874 Spill went bankrupt. Realising the commercial potential of Xylonite, he then set up the Daniel Spill Company and continued production.

In the 1860s, an American by the name of John Wesley Hyatt 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 in 1869 patented a method of covering billiard balls with the important addition of collodion.

The name Celluloid actually began as a trademark of the Celluloid Manufacturing Company of Newark, New Jersey, which manufactured the celluloids patented by John Wesley Hyatt](whose use of heat and pressure simplified the manufacture of these compounds). The name was registered in 1870.

In the late 1880s, celluloids for photographic film were developed. Hannibal Goodwin and the Eastman Company both obtained patents for a film product; but Goodwin, and the interests he later sold his patents to, were eventually successful in a patent infringement suit against the Eastman Kodak Company. Nevertheless, the groundwork in these products was set for a photographic film, as opposed to a photographic plate, with all the implications that has for motion pictures.

As thermoplastics, celluloids found a wide variety of uses in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Things like knife handles, fountain pen bodies, collars and cuffs, toys, etc were made of this material. However, it burned easily and suffered from spontaneous decomposition, and was largely replaced by cellulose acetate plastics and later polyethylenes by the middle of the 20th century. The use of celluloid for early film however has caused large problems in film preservation.

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.

One of the products still made from celluloid is the table tennis ball.

External links

  • Celluloid (http://www.plastiquarian.com/celluloi.htm)
  • Collodion (http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory/history/collodio.htm)



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