John Ballot was the son of a Dutch clergyman and left school at the age of 16 to join his uncle, Alexander Robertson, who was a trader in the Eastern Transvaal. He spent some time farming and store keeping and developed a keen interest in geology and astronomy. After the discovery of gold in the Barberton area he was briefly drawn to that town and in November 1888 was elected a member of the Barberton Scientific and Literary Society.
Ballot first formed a theory of the formation of the recently discovered gold-bearing beds of the Witwatersrand in April 1887, following a short visit to the south-east of Heidelberg. An outline of his views was published in the Natal Mercury in June of that year. He paid a second visit to the Witwatersrand in September 1887, which led to a series of articles in the Johannesburg Standard. The next year, under the pseudonym "Iones Beta", he compiled a collective reprint of these articles, with illustrations and further notes, in the form of a pamphlet. It was published under the title The banket formation, its probable origin and present position (Johannesburg, 1888) and constitutes the first substantial account of the mine workings in the Johannesburg area. An interesting feature of the publication is that, in the preface, the author mentions the astonishing variety of theories about the origin of the gold-bearing strata that were already current at the time. Ballot summarized the available evidence relating to the depositional conditions, and indicated what additional evidence needed to be searched for to test the various hypotheses. He also correctly foretold a very rich future for gold mining on the Rand. A few additional observations, based on a hurried visit to Blauwbank [not identified], were added as an appendix, dated 18 January 1888.
Ballot appears to have settled in Johannesburg around this time. In 1888 he and some others imported the first diamond drill on the Witwatersrand, though he preferred to mine on his own. He was an early sponsor of the Transvaal Chamber of Mines, established in 1889. When the Geological Society of South Africa was formed in 1895 Ballot was elected joint vice-president for 1896, and served on its council the year thereafter. He was still a member of the society in 1919. By 1896 he was also a Fellow of the Geological Society of London.
His interest in astronomy and related subjects led to two minor publications. The first, 'Correspondence: The phenomenal sunsets' (Astronomical Register, 1885) dealt with possible explanations of the spectacular sunsets following the recent eruption of Krakatoa. The second, 'Jumping stars' (The Observatory, 1888) described his observations of excessive scintillation of Venus near the horizon. Both publications give his address as Rolfontein, Wakkerstroom, Transvaal.
Ballot moved to London before April 1898, when he applied for a United States patent for improved means of securing bosses or sleeves on shafts. Later he, with H.L. Sulman* and H.F. Kirkpatrick-Picard obtained three United States patents (1906, 1906 and 1908) for improvements in the concentration of metalliferous ores. In London he founded Minerals Separation Limited, which applied his ideas on the treatment of refractory ores. As these methods were particularly successful for treating American copper ores a subsidiary of the firm was established in the United States, with Ballot as president. He still resided in London in 1919, but spent his later years in New York.