A Quick History of Snooker Balls

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This beautiful “Still life with snooker balls” made by myself with remarkable humility can not hide the fact that there is still a week, I was as informed about the game of pool as a clam on the electronic toll collection system.

This short article was so written to pretend I knew everything about the snooker ball, a niche market if any.

Boule de billard en ivoire

Interior Croquet

From the Roman period, a poem named Nux (“The Walnut”), and attributed with more or less assurance to Ovid (43 BC – 17 or 18 after J.C.), evokes games similar to that of snooker. In this elegy, a walnut evokes its misfortunes, especially that of being stolen fruit to serve children’s games. These games consist in cutting a line of nuts by skilfully projecting another nut.

The medieval croquet seems to be the most serious competitor for the title of ancestor of snooker. Played outdoors by the aristocrats (because the bumpkins have enough fun with farmland and the plague), croquet hardly withstands bad weather which quickly upset its followers.

Without a second thought, an “interior” version was created. Thus, around the 15th century, large tables made of a stone slab covered with fabric appear in the homes of the better-off. This giant game board is the ancestor of snooker as we know it today.

The balls used are usually made of wood or ivory. They measure between 48 and 61 millimeters in diameter. The boxwood or guaiac balls are shaped by the woodturner, craftsmen who make small wooden objects and utensils. They can also be the work of a palemardier, a craftsman specialized in the manufacture of the objects necessary to the game of the pall-mall (mail in french), a game furiously resembling croquet and which is democratized in the 17th century in France with the creation of public court. Some street names in France still retain the memory of this game as does Pall-Mall Street in St. James, London.

Ivory balls price is obviously astronomical because the material is precious. These are the « tabletiers », also responsible for the manufacture of chess games, which fend the gentleman in ivory ball. It seems to be in the 1588 inventory of the Duke of Norfolk (1536 – 1572) that we find the earliest mention of an ivory ball.

Photography I’m pretty proud of.
It looks like Rembrandt. YES-IT-DOES.

A Deplorable Dense of Analogy

I pass on Indian, English or Americain billiards, to arrive directly to the one we are interested in: the French billiards nicely called carom billiards. Like the fruit yes. The carom billiard is played by two players with only three balls. Each player has a white ball and the principle is roughly to hit the red ball – named carom – and the white ball of the opponent with his own ball.

Take a second to admire the sagacity of the guy who proposed that each player has a ball of the SAME color. Since he was probably the boss’s son, no one dared to tell him that it was the most stupid idea we heard of the day and he had better go try to catch the arrows a crossbow with his head. No, instead, we decided to discreetly differentiate one of the balls by affixing two small circles or two small diametrically opposite points which gave the ball the name of “dotted”.

On the other hand, the choice of colors is typical of the Middle Ages since the strongest chromatic opposition is not as today black and white but red and white. It is a contrast that we also find on chess games at the same time.

Personally, if I had to compare the red ball named carom with a fruit, I would rather have said an apple or a plum but certainly not a carom. You see how laid out is a carom ?

“Perfect sphere of an eloquent red,
this fruit has all the assets to give its name to a billard ball”
Dixit, Alistair armless and colorblind oaf
of the medieval era.

So yes the caramboles do not run the stands of the Middle Ages hence perhaps the little wrong idea they made of it; but still. Etymologically, this word under its billiard ball designation is at the origin of several other terms still used today.

The word carom comes from the Portuguese carambola (1563) designating the fruit from Asia which is also called karambal in India. Then the word goes to Spain a few years later before designating the red ball billiard in the early seventeenth century. The use of this word in the context of the game spread in France in the late eighteenth century. Then the verb carom – caramboler in french – appears and first means “to touch at the same time two balls with his”. In the figurative sense, the word is used in the automotive field to designate two cars that collide like balls on a billiard: there is pileup.

Which, I concede, is prettier than if the chosen fruit had been an apple or a plum.


  • Bourgeois Noëlle, Chauve Marie-Françoise, Guillaumin Jean-Yves. Jeux de noix de la Rome antique et jeux de billes de Franche-Comté. In: Dialogues d’histoire ancienne, vol. 33, n°1, 2007. pp. 71-84
    EVERTON C., The History of Snooker and Billards, Partridge Press, 1986
  • PASTOUREAU M., Une histoire symbolique du Moyen-Âge occidental, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, Février 2004
  • http://www.cnrtl.fr/etymologie
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