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The Evolution of Billiards Equipment
While billiards equipment changed very little in the twentieth century, the first 400 years of the game’s existence saw so many alterations that it’s no wonder historians have had such a difficult time piecing the puzzle together.
Changes in equipment begat changes in the nature of the games themselves, and changes in the game in England did not necessarily result in adjustments in France and/or America.
The first definitive notation of a table made for the express purpose of playing billiards was in 1470. The table, commissioned by France’s King Louis XI, was said to include a bed of stone, a cloth covering, and a hole in the middle of the playfield, into which balls were driven.
Later, pockets were moved to the outer edges of the playfield, and most featured six pockets — one at each corner, and one along each long rail. As billiards in the seventeenth century was still evolving from its outdoor forefathers, an ivory arch and upright target (called a “king”) were placed near the center of the table. Each player had his own cue ball and could score points by sending his ball through the arch, or “port,” or by making contact with the “king” without knocking it over.
Until the middle of the eighteenth century, billiard tables were crudely constructed, with little concern given to the stability of the piece. The bed was nothing more than a thin wooden board, and the inner construction did little to keep the board from warping.
By the early 1800s, accomplished cabinetmakers were beginning to produce solidly constructed billiard tables. While the bed was generally still made from wood, greater efforts were made to build and secure the bed through the use of various dried hardwoods and dowels. Slate beds followed shortly thereafter, and due to the weight of the slate, the inner construction of billiard tables became even more complex and substantial.
Later in the nineteenth century, table manufacturers began experimenting with gulleys and channels through which balls could be returned to a catch at one end of the table. Until that time, balls had been held in nets or traps attached to each pocket.
Dimensions of the tables varied, seemingly at the whimsy of the designer. Still, most tables were approximately twice as long as they were wide. Today, standard pool tables vary from 7 feet in length to 10 feet. As a rule of thumb, pocket openings can accommodate two pool balls set side by side. Carom tables, which don’t have pockets, are generally 5 feet wide by 10 feet long.
As tables became more advanced, the need for reliable reactions of billiard balls off the cushions became more obvious. The level of play, it was surmised, would never reach great heights unless players could come to expect consistent play from the cushions.
In the early days of billiard tables, the cushions were nothing more than short walls of wood. Lining the walls with leather failed to produce acceptable results, so cloth was wrapped around the cushions and stuffed with hair or cotton. Further experimentation has been said to include cushions blown up with compressed air.
Crude rubber from India made its way onto billiard cushions around 1835, but the material turned rock-hard when the room temperature dropped. Remedies included detachable rails, which could be warmed near an open fire before play, and hot irons with which to heat the cushions. Conversely, in excessive heat, the rubber softened to mush and needed to be iced.
Vulcanization, the process of chemically treating rubber so it can retain its elasticity regardless of temperature, changed the billiard cushion for good around 1845. Combinations of the vulcanized rubber, leather, and cork helped make the billiard table cushions reliable and consistent. Because so many of the billiard games at the time required caroms, the new material helped the quality of play soar almost immediately.
The majority of billiard balls in use during the game’s early years were made of wood. It was easily turned and shaped and was inexpensive. Ivory balls, formed from the tusks of elephants, were in use as early as 1627. While preferred by most billiard enthusiasts, ivory balls were relatively scarce. Only the wealthy could afford the material.
While beautiful to look at, ivory billiard balls were never very dependable. For starters, the elephant tusks had to be properly seasoned–sometimes as long as two years. The gelatin in tusks, which gives the material its glossy polish, was also a source of moisture. Unless the tusk was dried properly, excessive temperature changes could cause the material to fracture or even split. Ivory also tended to lose its shape easily.
With the purchase of a set of ivory billiard balls came elaborate instructions regarding their delicate nature. Because the balls were liable to absorb moisture, players were warned not to hold the spheres in their hands for any length of time. A “set of ivories,” as they were called, needed to be painstakingly broken in. Owners were advised to keep the balls in a place of even temperature and to strike them lightly for several months until they became acclimated to the environment.
The most obvious, and dramatic, change in equipment has been the development of the cue stick. As early as 1600, the object used to shove balls forward on the billiard table was the mace. The head of the mace was wide and flat-faced. The heel of the wooden block was curved slightly, and a long stick was extended from it. This allowed players to stand erect and slide the head of the mace along the playing surface.
As players sought more precision, a more narrow macehead attached to a straight stick was introduced in the mid-1600s. For even more precision, and to aid with shots near the cushion, accomplished players turned the mace around and shot with the tail end of the stick. By the turn of the seventeenth century, the cue as a separate piece of equipment was in use. Although women continued to use the mace until the end of the nineteenth century, men only used it when aiming their cues at hard-to-reach shots. Thus, the mace actually served as the first mechanical bridge.
Developed strictly as a matter of convenience, the two-piece tapered cue stick came into use before 1900. Although the cue stick has not undergone any significant changes since then, some of the cues manufactured at the turn of the century featured wide grips that tapered off slightly to the butt end. The “fishing pole” style didn’t last, but the practice of garnishing the butt of the cue with elaborate inlays and designs was prevalent even then.
The 1800s proved to be the century during which billiards went through its most dramatic changes — alterations that would eventually thrust the game into its current state. Perhaps the most important changes, the invention of the leather cue tip, are credited to a jailed French infantry captain named Mingaud. As the story goes, Mingaud was imprisoned in Paris at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The prison had a billiard table, to which Mingaud devoted all of his time. How this guy came to discover that, by mounting a patch of leather to the tip of the cue stick, he could impart a significant amount of spin to the cue ball remains a mystery. What is known, however, is that Mingaud’s fascination with billiards was intense. At the end of his prison term, he actually asked for more time in jail so that he might complete his study of the game!
Chalk, which added to the tip’s power over the cue ball, was also in wide use by the 1820s. The first known cubes of chalk were white. By the mid-1800s, most of the ways in which a cue tip could affect the cue ball were pretty widely known.
— From “Steve Mizerak’s Complete Book of Pool,” by Steve Mizerak and Michael E. Panozzo
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