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A History of Billiards

Image by Gislane Dijkstra

Origins - Ground Billiards. 

The origin of the Billiards family of games is partially shrouded in mystery but it is many centuries old and almost certainly derived from an out-door game of the croquet family played during the 14th century in Northern Europe. Even the word 'billiard' has a disputed etymology - but it is likely a French derivative coming either from 'billart' (mace) or 'bille' (ball). During the middle-ages and even back to ancient Egypt, many sports were played with balls, clubs, maces or bats and skittles. There are ancient pictures depicting games that are clearly the forerunner of modern Skittles (Americans will know this as 10 pin bowling), Bowls, Quoits and Tennis, for instance. However, records do show one game that is related to Billiards. Sometimes known as 'Ground Billiards', the game was played on a small outdoor court with a hoop at one end and an upright stick at the other. This Croquet-esque pastime required people to strike balls around the court with maces. No rules are known for the game at this time but it seems entirely possible that they would have been pretty similar to the rules outlined for Port & King Billiards. Clive Everton (in his History of Billiards) states that Ground Billiards crystalized into existence in the 1340s and carried on into the 1600s. It was apparently played throughout much of Europe - in Italy it was known as 'biglia', in France 'bilhard', in Spain 'virlota' and some texts say that in England it was known as 'ball-yard' although a source for this has not been found. The game appears to be critical to game history since it apparently led to the families of both Billiards and Croquet games. There is no evidence of an ancestor of Billiards prior to this time, unless you do lower your criteria to count all the other games played with bats, balls and skittles. In 'Sports and Pastimes of England' by James Strutt, there is an illustration of Ground Billiards. Some textbooks claim that this is evidence that of the game being played in the 1200s as it is copied from a 13th century manuscript. In fact, although other diagrams before and after are shown as 14th century, only one is listed as 13th century and the picture in question has no date against it at all. None-the-less, 14th century (1300s) seems to be a reasonable bet, and according the Canadian National Billiards website, the manuscript's date has been estimated to be from 1344.

Port and King Billiards. 

At some point in the 1400s, people began to play a version of Ground Billiards indoors on a table as well. It's likely that the green cloth was supposed to represent the lawn from which the game had been stolen. [Adaptation of outdoor sports for the indoors has happened to other games in Northern Europe at one time or another including Quoits, Old English skittles and Western Skittles and Bowls - presumably players did not want to stop playing when the long nights and inclement weather of winter set in]. The earliest evidence found for the existence of Billiards played on a table was in 1470 in an inventory of items purchased by King Louis XI of France. Listed were "billiard balls and billiard table for pleasure and amusement.". Earliest mentions in England were in 1588 when Billiard tables were in the possession of The Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Leicester as well as Mary, Queen of Scots, who had a billiard table in her prison cell while she awaited execution. The new table Billiards was apparently an extremely popular game across France by 1630 and in England it was described in various publications during the 1600s and 1700s including the first description of the rules by Charles Cotton in 'The Compleat Gamester' published 1674. Although variations probably existed and there were definitely variations in dimensions and type of equipment, the most popular was a two player game played on a table with six pockets. The pockets, called 'hazards', were simply there as obstacles to be avoided - like bunkers in golf. The table featured a croquet-like hoop at one end called the 'Port' and an upright skittle at the other called the 'King'. Each player was allocated a single ball which was pushed rather than struck with a mace (a stick with a special wooden end). The idea was to be the first through the Port in the correct direction (if your ball went in the 'wrong' direction, you were deemed a 'fornicator') and then back to touch the King without knocking either Port or King over. A point was scored for each time you did this and the winner was the first to a number of points - typically 5. If this sounds simple, remember that the tables were rarely flat, the balls often not completely round and maces were hardly implements of great accuracy. Additionally, in common with Croquet, the game was as much about knocking the opponent's ball into penalties as about furthering one's own cause. Pushing the opponent's ball into a hazard, the wrong way through the Port or causing it to knock over the King was as beneficial as running the Port yourself.... It is also important for the modern player to bear in mind that the concept of a 'break', something we take completely for granted, was completely unknown at this time. Players simply took turns to strike their ball. So it can be imagined that this fundamental difference made all of the older games completely different to play compared with those that we are used to. In common with many other pub games, Billiards was was banned from Taverns in England in 1757 due to its seedy reputation.

Billiard Equipment Development. 

The development of the various forms and families of billiards owes much to changes and improvements to the equipment used. This applies to the balls, the maces or cues, the surface of the table and the side cushions in particular. Without radical improvements to all pieces of equipment used in the game, none of the modern variations of Billiards could exist. There were hundreds of new innovations and changes over the next 2 or 3 centuries but here are a few of the more significant inventions: By the early 1600's, people in mainland Europe sometimes used the handle (or 'queue' - 'tail' in French; later 'cue') of the mace to strike the ball instead of the larger mace head. This was more convenient especially when the ball to be struck was near the edge of the table and this method gradually took over. It wasn't so much that an implement called the cue replaced the mace - more that the pointy end of the mace gradually became thinner and more used while the thick end of the mace gradually became less used. Both the mace and the cue ends of the stick gradually changed in shape. England was resistent to this change for some reason - the cue was available in billiard rooms by 1734, but did not gain real popularity until around 1800. It was used by most players by 1810 and by 1820, following the invention of the leather cue tip, the mace was virtually dead. Balls were originally wooden but by the end of the 1600s, most people played with ivory spheres. However, ivory was never a perfect solution - the balls were never consitently dense and the nerve in the elephant's tusk left a small hole in each ball but it wasn't until 1868 that composition balls were invented by John Wesley Hyatt from New York. Initially, composition balls, too, were far from ideal in various respects one of which being that they would apparently explode if struck too hard, but Hyatt produced a new composition in 1893 that solved most of these problems for good. Early billiard tables were uncovered wood. Cloth covering for tables appeared from around 1660 and the quality gradually improved over the ensuing centuries. In 1807, a french prisoner, François Mingaud, perfected the leather cue tip thereby revolutionising the game by allowing significant control of the cue ball through spin. Many texts say that he invented the leather tip but there is evidence that it existed before this time albeit probably in imperfect form. John Thurston began experimenting with slate as the table bed in 1826 and by 1840 slate had generally succeeded wood as the table body of choice. John Thurston also successfully introduced rubber cushions, the first sale being to the officer's mess of the 42nd Royal Hussars in Corfu on 16th May 1835. Prior to that, cushions were stuffed with flax, cotton or other padded materials and the result was fairly deadening. The trouble with rubber was that the cushions stopped being bouncy when cold. On 15th October 1838, Queen Victoria received (from Thurston at Windsor Castle) the first table that included special cushion-warming hot water pans to overcome this problem. On 6th September 1845, Thurston's obtained a patent to apply the vulcanising process, recently invented by the American Charles Goodyear, to the rubber cushions of billiard tables. This alleviated the coldness problem somewhat and the first set of vulcanised rubber cushions was fitted to Queen Victoria's table at Windsor Castle on 15th October 1845. The formula wasn't too successful to begin with but gradually improved to the form we know today.

The sub-families of Billiards. 

The story of billiards in all it's varieties and with a complete lack of any accepted standards was far from clear up to this point but around now began drifting down several differentiable paths.

Around 1770, Port and King Billiards, which had seen astonishing success having survived for probably more than 3 centuries (Pool and Snooker enthusiasts take note - your games haven't lasted a century yet), began to be superceded in England by two new variations - 'the Winning Game' and 'the Losing Game'in which the Port and King did not feature. This was the first step in the convoluted process that led to English Billiards and Snooker. These games that were naturally exported to most of the British colonies (approximately a quarter of the world at the time) and indeed Snooker, the King of all Billiard games was invented in India. 
Meanwhile, the French had also been creative - the game of Carambole or Carambolage had been invented by 1810 and not long afterwards the French started making tables without any pockets at all which was the start of the the second main branch of the Billiards family tree. 
The new concept of the Cannon, Carom or Carombolage was adapted by the English for their Billiards game and variations of Carambole would become popular across much of Europe, the USA and in some parts of Asia. 
In the 1800s, Americans who up to now had been simply importing and copying what was happening in Europe had started down their own path with new games called One Pocket, Four Ball Billiards and Fifteen Ball Pool which was the first of many games in the American Pool family. Finally, the Italians were playing Pin Billiards, a branch of the game that has found it's way through central and Northern Europe as well as to South America. 
Note - the ambiguous term 'Billiards'. The word 'Billiards' has come to mean different things to different people. Presumably, the original word Billiard referred to the game of Port and King billiards played with the hoop and skittle. Later and still today in England it has come to mean the descendent of this game played with two white and one red ball - we'll call this 'English Billiards'. But as other games began to be played upon the table, Billiards could sometimes simply mean any game played on a Billiards table - i.e. the generic 'Billiards family of games'. In America the word Billiards has different meanings. It can again mean the entire family of cue games played on a table. However, because there are two sorts of table - those with pockets and those without, the American games are divided in two. The generic term for games played on a table with pockets is either 'Pool' or 'Pocket Billiards' while games played on tables without pockets are referred to as just plain'Billiards' or 'Carom Billiards' or just 'Carom'. Not only does this further muddle the term 'Billiards', it also overlaps with the quite different Indian game of'Carrom'! This is just too confusing so the word Billiards will not be used when describing American games - games played on tables with pockets will be 'Pool'; games played on pocketless tables will be called Carambole or Carom Billiards. 
In Europe and some other parts, Billiards or Billard simply refers to Carambole, the primary game that is played there. Again, the term Carambole will be used for this family of games so as to be clear. 

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