Billiard Table Lighting



Days of Old number 6
Billiard Table Lighting

From the earliest times, man has employed artificial illumination to utilize the hours of darkness. Until the first electric light became available late in the 19th century, all artificial light was produced by fire or flame. Wax candles are said to be of Phoenician origin, oval cup type oil lamps of stone or clay with a wick, using animal oils had their origin several thousand years B.C. whilst it is accepted that the Chinese used natural gas conveyed in bamboo tubes in prehistoric times!!

Going back to the early 1700s, when billiard tables had wooden beds with stuffed cushions, and the players used wooden balls, and maces instead of cues, there is no doubt that the only form of indoor illumination was by candlelight. However, in the early illustrations of billiard room scenes, as shown by the accompanying picture dated 1770, there is no form of lighting over the billiard table, although at night there may have been some candles, in wall brackets around the room.

A billiard room in 1770

The first evidence we have of lighting over a billiard table in England is provided by the illustration of Thurstons Billiard Room in Catherine Street, London, taken from the front piece of the second edition of the book dated 1831 by Monsieur Mingaud (the French Infantry Officer who invented the leather cue tips). From the small picture with this article, it will be difficult to discern the form of illumination used in the “New Revolving Light”, but in the large original print, candles are clearly visible with flat plates below to catch the drips of wax. This method of lighting by candles is described in the “World of Billiards”, page 39, dated 28th November 1900, and it is said that much of the light was lost by reason of the drip plates.

This same picture was subsequently revised and reprinted as a front piece to Edwin Kentfields book “Billiards”, first edition, published 1839, with some small changes to the billiard room scene, the light fitting now includes oil lamps. In one of the early reports of a billiard match, it mentions that “the lamps were set” which seems to refer to the setting and adjusting of oil lamps. Small saucer like receptacles under each lamp were used to catch the drips of oil, nevertheless, there can be little doubt that some drips would disfigure and damage the playing surface.

Early experiments in the use of natural gas were carried out about 1664, by the Rev John Clayton, in Wigan, Lancashire, which he suspected came from a local Coal Mine, but it was more than 100 years later that a Professor Minckelers at Louvain University, (Belgium), distilled gas from coal (amongst other substances), and used it in 1785 to light his lecture room. In 1792 a William Murdock, lighted his home by gas and in 1802 he developed a type of open burner. The use for lighting developed during the first half of the 19th Century, and a Mr Nielson, of Glasgow introduced the “the fish tail” burner in 1820.

After much research, the earliest record which the writer can find of gas being used to light a billiard table is in the book by John Roberts Senior, published 1868, where he recommends gas – using the “Ring and Argand”, in the form of a treble “T” (total 6 burners). This would be a “bat wing” flame without any form of mantle, as although a primitive form of mantle was first used about 1866, incandescent mantles were not known until 1890. Gas Chandeliers for lighting billiard tables became the standard equipment during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and it was reported in the “World of Billiards”, of 19th December, 1900, how a young marker when instructed that . . . “The gas jets surmounting the table required lighting” . . . they found him match in hand, walking about on the surface of the table from jet to jet, whilst wearing hob-nailed boots.

By 1904, William Lindop, of Shudehill, Manchester (The company is still very active in the Sports Trade), was advertising “The Perfect Billiard Light”, with less heat – increased light and claimed to be more economical, the consumption of gas being reduced by 75%.

In the second edition of the book “Billiards for Everybody”, published 1906 by Charles Roberts, brother of John Roberts Junior, he says that . . . “Anti-vibration Incandescent Lighting is more economic than electric light and is the best he has seen” . . . See the illustration taken from the Sales Brochure of Foster & Pullen Limited.

A few years later the same Company were supplying the earlier type of electric light pendants for billiard lighting. The development of electric lighting was a gradual process, the first incandescent electric lamp appeared in 1820, but it had a very short and inefficient life. Progress was very slow during the next 100 tears, and many individual inventors worked trying to produce more efficient and more durable lamps, but it was not until 1910 that a William Coolidge, produced a drawn tungsten filament vacuum lamp and 3 years later his associate Dr. Langmuir, developed the gas filled lamp in the laboratories of the General Electric Company in 1913, which finally made electric lighting a practicable possibility for domestic and industrial purposes, including billiard table lighting.

As will be seen from the various illustrations, the early electric billiard lighting fittings followed the pattern of the original gas pendants, with electric lamps and holders taking the place of the gas jets, usually with 3 square shades in line or 6 circular shades in 2 parallel lines of 3.

During the 1920s, electric lighting rapidly displaced gas for lighting billiard tables, although the author of this article (who can be seen making circular billiard shades for electric lights in photograph of 1933), can well remember as a young apprentice, still making billiard shades for gas lights in the early 1930s.

Although electric billiard lighting was a tremendous improvement, the individual circular or square shades had the great disadvantage of throwing their own shape in the form of shadows on the surface of the billiard table, and so during the 1930’s, many “non shadow” shades were developed. One of the first being the “Skidmore” shade, as seen in the 1933 picture of Thurstons Match Hall.

It was an efficient shade using two 150 watt lamps but it was very large and ugly in appearance and it required 6 ceiling suspension points and 2 electric points. This shade has now disappeared in favour of the almost universal shallow inverted trough type shades requiring only 2 ceiling suspension points and one electric point which connects to the integral wiring carried on the roof of the shade itself, linking 3 or 4 or 5 lamp holders together. The internal baffles are carefully positioned in relation to the lamps to avoid both shadows and glare. Providing the reflecting surfaces are well maintained, pearl type tungsten filament lamps totalling 300 watts are ample for ordinary club play – lighting of greater intensity is only necessary for the benefit of spectators or television programmes, not the players.

It should be particularly noted that tungsten filament lamps give a much better colour rendering than most fluorescent tube type lighting and this is obviously very important when playing snooker. Readers may be surprised to learn that about 9% (almost one person in 10) of the male population suffer some degree of defective colour perception as compared to only 0.5% of females – so the ladies are correct when they say that their men folk have no colour sense in matters of dress or domestic decorations. Fluorescent lighting also produces an undesirable “stroboscopic” effect, this is not a problem when the balls are stationary, as when taking the shot, but when the balls are moving, can cause the players to think the balls are not running true, this effect is more noticeable when playing American Pool using the striped and numbered balls. Ordinary electric lamps are also easier to renew in Club situations – were the failure of one lamp does not prevent play and in any case a replacement lamp can usually be borrowed from elsewhere in the club, whilst if a fluorescent tube fails, spare tubes especially of the necessary “true colour” type are not so readily available, and the fitting of same can present something of a problem for Club Stewards.

The modern inverted trough type billiard lighting shade can also be upholstered in coloured dralon and other fabrics with matching fringes when required to accord with the decorations in domestic situations etc.

© 1990 Norman Clare / 2018 E A Clare & Son Limited
Reproduction of this article allowed with permission from E A Clare & Son Limited