Billiards The Transformation Years

In this article we pick up from where we left off with John Thurston's changes to the billiard table itself. What Thurston came up with was the idea to make the table foundation out of slate. This gave the manufacturer of the table and the player many advantages. The advantages to the manufacturer was cost and availability.

Slate was very cheap and the supply was virtually unlimited. Like marble it had a smooth surface which resulted in much faster games as there wasn't as much friction. Also, once it was cut, measured and fitted just right, it eliminated the problem of warping.

The only problem with slate was weight. It was very heavy. This led to further advancements where the tables themselves had to be constructed much more sturdily. This also led to an improvement in play.

By 1835, 2 inch slate beds had become standard features in English tables. Because of the low cost and playability, this is the material of choice even today. After the improvements in the table itself were made, attention was then turned towards the cushions. It was agreed by manufacturers that to improve playability, it was important for play off the cushions to be consistent. The early cushions were only short walls of wood. Lining these walls with leather or cloth did little to improve play.

Around 1835 crude rubber from India was tried. These rubber cushions were an immediate improvement. But then the seasons and the weather changed and the India rubber turned soft when it got hot and rock hard when it got cold. Remedies were tried to keep the rubber at a constant temperature but were unsuccessful. Then in 1837, Charles Goodyear, of the soon to be Goodyear tyre, started to experiment with the process of combining rubber and sulphur. Two years later, by accident when he dropped a solution on a hot stove, he discovered the process for vulcanized rubber.

This discovery had a huge impact on many industries. Vulcanized rubber maintained its resilience in the worst heat and the most bitter cold. In 1845 Thurston was granted a patent to use Goodyear's discovery in billiard table cushions. He made what were called "frost proof" cushions which were composed or cork, leather and vulcanized rubber. This was a revolutionary breakthrough. Cushions were now consistent and reliable.

Bank shots, which were at one time totally unpredictable, were now a very important part of the game. Vulcanized rubber is still used in table cushions even today. During this time improvements in the quality of the cloth were also made. Wool cloths proved to be the most durable but even stretched out had an effect on the trajectory of the ball because of the friction. But during the mid 1800s many refinements were made to the wool through weaving, felting, dying and shearing, which resulted in a cloth that was quite playable that eventually Thurston added to his tables. When doing so it actually improved the smoothness of the slate underneath.

In our next article in this series we'll go over changes to billiard balls and other improvements to the game in the mid to late 1800s. .

By: Michael Russell

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