Early billiards balls where made of Elephant ivory, huge numbers of these magnificent animals were killed just for their tusks. Shockingly, only a few billiard balls, maybe two or three at most could be made from a single tusk.
Billiards was played with two whites, one with a black dot at each pole of the ball – this was actually the nerve running though the tusk ! The one red ball was coloured with red vegetable dye. Estimates vary from 250,000 up to 2 million Elephants slaughtered just to keep the empire playing billiards.
No one in the world needs an elephant tusk but an elephant.
With the advent of snooker needing 22 balls the hunt was on for a composite material to meet the demand for this increasingly popular game. Early balls were bonzolne and crystalate based on a cellulose nitrite composition – not far removed from nitro glycerin!!! This led to early rumours of exploding balls!! – never proven – perhaps just a myth?
What is in no doubt, the search for a replacement for ivory led to the direct development of better high explosives, so maybe the Elephants had their karma when you consider the impact these explosives have had on the human race.
The other irony is the modern phenolic resin based ball plays very similar to the original ivory ball both in weight and response. Though the temperature does not affect the modern ball to the same extent and you don’t need to send a man out to true your balls up!!! – yep that’s true – Ivory Ball Trimmers and Turner’s was a highly skilled job.
If you ever come across a set of very rare ivory balls they are worth a lot of money, never be tempted to wash them in water as the vegetable dyes used will simply run away, which explains why most of them end up white.