Have you ever wondered where the idea for chalk came from? Or why the cloth on a pool table is usually green? How about the invention of the leather tip. Well I have done a little research and compiled some interesting facts about the game we love. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
The first written reference to “Billiards” appears in Edmond Spencers’s Mother Hubberd’s Tale in 1591. Nearest I can gather, billiards is derived from popular outside games like croquet, golf and bocce. People enjoyed these games so much that they wanted and indoor version to play during the winter months. The first billiard tables were covered in green cloth and had no rails. Instead of the cues we know today, they used maces ( similar to a golf club) to push the balls around the table rather than strike them.
Early billiard games involved various pieces of additional equipment, including the “arch” (related to the croquet hoop), “port” (a different hoop) and “king” (a pin or skittle near the arch) in the 1770s, but other game variants, relying on the cushions (and eventually on pockets cut into them), were being formed that would go on to play fundamental roles in the development of modern billiards.
The pockets on a pool table were originally designed as a hazard, like sand traps in golf and weren’t always located on the rails, sometimes the pockets were cut into the tables surface! Eventually the game evolved into three cue sport classifications we know today. Billiards, Snooker and pool.
The cue has undergone a series of changes since it’s original form, the mace. After a while people realized that when the ball is close to the rail it was hard to use the mace, so they turned it around and hit the ball with the “tail” end. The word queue is french for “tail”. Eventually the “cue” as we know it evolved from this.
Early cues didn’t have a leather tip since applying spin wasn’t really part of the game at that time. People would push the cue’s end into a plaster wall or ceiling so that a chalk-like deposit would form on the end, reducing the chance of a miscue. In 1807 Francois Minguad was studying the game of billiards while being held in Paris as a political prisoner, and experimented with a leather cue tip. The first tip was reportedly made from from a piece of leather taken off his shoe. It has been rumored that he asked for additional time in prison to complete his work! Mingaud is also credited with the discovery that by raising the cue vertically, to the position adopted by the mace, he could perform what is now known as a masse’ shot. (my hero!)
So you got a leather tip, now what? Well there are two men that can be credited with one of the best inventions in pool, they are John Carr and John Bartley. In the early 1800’s they began to notice how spin can be used to the players advantage and John Carr started selling chalk in boxes, he called it his “Twisting Powder”. (because chalk in boxes doesn’t sound as good!) The new magical substance took hold and now is considered required equipment in today’s game. Isn’t it amazing that in 200 years we have yet to find a substance that is proven to be better than leather and chalk! And it’s not for lack of trying. I have seen all manner of tips and chalk like substances, none of which has stood the test of time like the originals.
Pool balls however have came a long way for their beginnings. The earliest balls were made of wood and then later clay (the latter remaining in use well into the 20th century). Although affordable ox bone balls were in common use in Europe,ivory was favored since at least 1627 until the early 20th century the earliest known written reference to ivory billiard balls is in the 1588 inventory of the Duke of Norfolk.
By the mid-19th century, elephants were being slaughtered for their ivory at an alarming rate, just to keep up with the demand for high-end billiard balls – no more than eight balls could be made from a single elephant’s tusks.The billiard industry realized that the supply of elephants (their primary source of ivory) was endangered,as well as dangerous to obtain (the latter an issue of notable public concern at the turn of the 19th century). Inventors were challenged to come up with an alternative material that could be manufactured, with a US $10,000 prize being offered by a New York supplier,(This would be worth $174,600 today).
[contrary to popular belief, the hole in the center of the cue ball was not created when it was turned on a lathe. It is in fact the hole in which the elephants nerve was in, in the center of the tusk]
Clay Pool Balls
John Wesley Hyatt invented a composition material in 1869 called nitrocellulose for billiard balls (US patent 50359, the first American patent for billiard balls). It is unclear if the cash prize was ever awarded, and there is no evidence suggesting he did in fact win it. By 1870 it was commercially branded Celluloid, the first industrial plastic. Unfortunately, the nature of celluloid made it volatile in production, occasionally exploding, which ultimately made this early plastic impractical. Legend has it that celluloid billiard balls themselves would occasionally explode during rough play, but no reliable sources have been found that can substantiate this.
Celluloid Pool Balls
Subsequently, to avoid the problem of celluloid instability, the industry experimented with various other synthetic materials for billiards balls such as Bakelite, Crystalite, and other plastic compounds. Today most pool balls are made of Phenolic Resin, an extremely strong resin that is chip resistant.
So I’m going to leave you with a few pictures and text from one of my favorite authors Mark Twain, pool enthusiast.
The game of billiards has destroyed my naturally sweet disposition.
- Speech, April 24, 1906
"A pool table is better than a doctor."
Below is an excerpt from The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain by Albert Bigelow Paine
With the return to New York I began a period of closer association with Mark Twain. Up to that time our relations had been chiefly of a literary nature. They now became personal as well.
It happened in this way: Mark Twain had never outgrown his love for the game of billiards, though he had not owned a table since the closing of the Hartford house, fifteen years before. Mrs. Henry Rogers had proposed to present him with a table for Christmas, but when he heard of the plan, boylike, he could not wait, and hinted that if he had the table “right now” he could begin to use it sooner. So the table came–a handsome combination affair, suitable to all games–and was set in place. That morning when the dictation ended he said:
“Have you any special place to lunch, to-day?”
I replied that I had not.
“Lunch here,” he said, “and we’ll try the new billiard-table.”
I acknowledged that I had never played more than a few games of pool, and those very long ago.
“No matter,” he said “the poorer you play the better I shall like it.”
So I remained for luncheon, and when it was over we began the first game ever played on the “Christmas” table. He taught me a game in which caroms and pockets both counted, and he gave me heavy odds. He beat me, but it was a riotous, rollicking game, the beginning of a closer relation between us. We played most of the afternoon, and he suggested that I “come back in the evening and play some more.” I did so, and the game lasted till after midnight. I had beginner’s luck–”nigger luck,” as he called it–and it kept him working feverishly to win. Once when I had made a great fluke–a carom followed by most of the balls falling into the pockets, he said:
“When you pick up that cue this table drips at every pore.”
The morning dictations became a secondary interest. Like a boy, he was looking forward to the afternoon of play, and it seemed never to come quickly enough to suit him. I remained regularly for luncheon, and he was inclined to cut the courses short that we might the sooner get up- stairs for billiards. He did not eat the midday meal himself, but he would come down and walk about the dining-room, talking steadily that marvelous, marvelous talk which little by little I trained myself to remember, though never with complete success. He was only killing time, and I remember once, when he had been earnestly discussing some deep question, he suddenly noticed that the luncheon was ending.
“Now,” he said, “we will proceed to more serious matters–it’s your– shot.”
My game improved with practice, and he reduced my odds. He was willing to be beaten, but not too often. We kept a record of the games, and he went to bed happier if the tally-sheet showed a balance in his favor.
He was not an even-tempered player. When the game went steadily against him he was likely to become critical, even fault-finding, in his remarks. Then presently he would be seized with remorse and become over-gentle and attentive, placing the balls as I knocked them into the pockets, hurrying to render this service. I wished he would not do it. It distressed me that he should humble himself. I was willing that he should lose his temper, that he should be even harsh if he felt so inclined–his age, his position, his genius gave him special privileges. Yet I am glad, as I remember it now, that the other side revealed itself, for it completes the sum of his humanity. Once in a burst of exasperation he made such an onslaught on the balls that he landed a couple of them on the floor. I gathered them up and we went on playing as if nothing had happened, only he was very gentle and sweet, like a summer meadow when the storm has passed by. Presently he said:
“This is a most amusing game. When you play badly it amuses me, and when I play badly and lose my temper it certainly must amuse you.”
It was but natural that friendship should grow under such conditions. The disparity of our ages and gifts no longer mattered. The pleasant land of play is a democracy where such things do not count.
We celebrated his seventy-first birthday by playing billiards all day. He invented a new game for the occasion, and added a new rule for it with almost every shot. It happened that no other member of the family was at home–ill-health had banished every one, even the secretary. Flowers, telegrams, and congratulations came, and a string of callers. He saw no one but a few intimate friends.
We were entirely alone for dinner, and I felt the great honor of being his only guest on such an occasion. On that night, a year before, the flower of his profession had assembled to do him honor. Once between the courses, when he rose, as was his habit, to walk about, he wandered into the drawing-room, and, seating himself at the orchestrelle, began to play the beautiful “Flower Song” from Faust. It was a thing I had not seen him do before, and I never saw him do it again. He was in his loveliest humor all that day and evening, and at night when we stopped playing he said:
“I have never had a pleasanter day at this game.”
I answered: “I hope ten years from to-night we shall be playing it.”
“Yes,” he said, “still playing the best game on earth.”
Mark Twain died 4 years later.