It is generally accepted that billiards evolved from a game, played outside on a lawn that was similar to croquet, played sometime during the 15th century in Northern Europe and France. Play was moved indoors to a wooden table with green cloth to simulate grass, and an edge was placed around the table to keep the balls from falling to the floor. The balls were shoved, rather than struck, with wooden sticks called "maces" in England. The term "billiard" derived from French, either from the word "billart," the wooden sticks, or "bille," a ball.

Most information about early billiards comes from accounts of royalty and other nobles playing the game. The first written reference to a billiard table occurred in a 1470 inventory of the possessions of King Louis XI [reigned (1461–83)] of France. This table had a hole in its center serving as a forerunner to pockets. At this time kings and high ranking nobility ordered their own custom made tables and set their own rules. The nobility practiced the local monarch's variety of billiards assiduously. An invitation to play with the king was a chance of a lifetime that could lead to a court office and the king would expect the invited player to show enough skill to make the game interesting. Other early billiards royal players included: Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-1587); King Louis XIV (1643-1715); Marie Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI. It has been known as the "Noble Game of Billiards" since the early 1800's. In 1609, the game was familiar enough to the public that Shakespeare mentioned it in his play Anthony and Cleopatra. In 1674, the first book to mention billiards The Complete Gamester stated that in England there were "few Towns of note therein which hath not a publick Billiard-Table".


The cue stick was developed in the late 1600's. When the ball lay near a wall, the mace was difficult to use because of its large head. In such a case, the players would turn the mace around and use its handle to strike the ball. The handle was called a "queue" - meaning "tail" - from which we get the word "cue". For a long time only men were allowed to use the cue; women were forced to use the mace because it was felt they were more likely to rip the cloth with the sharper cue. A French Captain Mingaud, who was a political prisoner in Paris during the French Revolution, studied the physics of shot making. He added a leather pad to the end of the cue, reducing the pressure exerted on the wood. By rounding off the cue end he increased the area of the tip that could put a rotation on the ball itself. When the ball was hit off center with his cue it created backspin. Cues were used by most players by 1810.


billiards 1694The game was originally played with two balls on a table with a hoop similar to a croquet wicket and an upright stick used as a target. During the eighteenth century, the hoop and target gradually disappeared, leaving only the balls and pockets, which were, most likely, added to the table in the late 1700's. Tables originally had low vertical walls whose only function was to keep the balls from falling off the table. The walls came to be called "banks" because they resembled river banks. Players discovered that balls could be bounced off the walls and began to deliberately plan shots that included a rebound from the table edge or "bank," creating a "bank shot". The "banks" were unpadded until the 1600s when they began to be stuffed with flax, cotton, or horsehair and came to be called cushions.

Billiard tables had been covered in a woolen material for several centuries, perhaps as early as 1500. Charles Cotton observed in 1674 that "the finer and more free from knots [the cloth] the better it is". The advent of the Industrial Revolution allowed production of a truly fine woolen billiard cloth made in large quantities that made it available at a reasonable cost.

The two-to-one ration of length to width did not become the standard proportions for billiard tables until the 18th century. Early tables were custom constructed by cabinet makers for the buyer. Because the beds of these tables were made of wood, they warped within just a few years. John Thurston began experimenting with a slate table bed in 1826 and by 1840 slate had become the table bed of choice. John Thurston also introduced rubber cushions in 1835. The previous stuffed cushions had tended to deadening the motion of rebounding balls. Goodyear discovered vulcanization of rubber in 1839 and by 1845 it was used to make billiard cushions that gave rebounded balls more energy. By 1850, the billiard table had essentially reached its current form.


Balls were originally wooden but by the end of the 1600s ivory had replaced wood. Ivory balls, however, were never consistently dense and the nerve in the elephant's tusk left a small hole in each ball. John Wesley Hyatt of New York developed composition balls in 1868. These balls were celluloid, one of the earliest plastics, which was a preparation of cellulose nitrate, camphor, and ethanol. These composition balls were highly flammable and were rumored to explode! A new formula in 1893 solved the problem.

Other Developments

Billiard equipment improved rapidly in England after 1800. Chalk was used to increase friction between the ball and the cue stick. The leather cue tip was perfected by 1823. Visitors from England showed Americans how to use spin which explains why it is called "English" in the United States but nowhere else. The British themselves refer to it as "side". The two-piece cue came into use in 1829.

During the early 1800s billiard tables were lit by candles. Drip trays were necessary to prevent wax from getting on to the table. These trays tended to reduce the amount of light reaching the table. Candle light was replaced by oil lamps, but a tray was still necessary to prevent drips of oil from damaging the cloth covering the bed of the table. By the 1860s gas lighting led to better illumination and improved play.

Famous Georgian Billard Players

In England, King George IV (1820-1830), King William IV (1830-1837), Queen Victoria (1867-1901)(who had billiard tables both at Buckingham Palace and Osborne House) and the Duke of Wellington all owned billiard tables. In France, Napoleon had a billard room at his home Malmaison. Two tables were exported to St. Helena--one for the use of Napoleon during his exile and another for the garrison of English soldiers guarding him.

The BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice mini series included a brief scene of Darcy playing billiards.
For the most complete information and many never before published illustrations see The Billiard Encyclopedia: An Illustrated History of the Sport by Victor Stein, Paul Rubino.

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