French royalty transitioned the game from one played on outdoor lawns to one played indoors on wooden tables.
Image: Guiseppe Zocchi, Billiards, 1752.
By Allie Leigh Adams
Francois Mingaud

We can thank the French for some of pool’s most important innovations. Fifteenth-century French royalty, for instance, transitioned the game from one played on outdoor lawns to one played indoors on wooden tables. Another innovation — and perhaps nearly as important — was the addition of cue tips to wooden cues. Without cue tips, there would be no draw shots, no spin and no English. Without cue tips, the game as it is played now would not exist.

The inventor was Francois Mingaud, who was born on Jan. 4, 1771, in Le Cailar, France. An infantry officer in Napoleon Bonapartes’ army, Mingaud was imprisoned in Bicetre in 1804 for his alleged part in a conspiracy against the military leader. There was not much to do at the prison, but there was a billiard table — and so Mingaud would pick up a cue every day to practice. And every day he would miscue. Because Mingaud was an infantry officer, he also was required to ride a horse, and the saddle upon which he rode was made of leather. Leather, he thought, would be an excellent solution to his persistent miscues and so one day he carefully cut a circle out of a saddle and glued the leather ring to the narrow end of his cue. Voilà! The cue tip was born. The innovation changed the sport of billiards forever. 

Along with this new discovery came new applications of stroke. Soon, Mingaud discovered that when struck below center, he could command the cue ball back towards him. After his release from prison in 1807, he began showing off this new invention in the cafes of Paris, France. He would absolutely terrify his spectators as he perfectly stroked the cue ball through the base to draw it backwards towards him. It was miraculous. When he was really feeling the room, he would even resort to throwing the cue ball onto the floor as if to smash it, exclaiming that the cue ball must be possessed by Satan himself! Of course, he would eventually let spectators in on the joke. His shows became so popular he eventually toured Europe with them. 

Along with his invention of the leather cue tip and discovery of spin, Mingaud also is thought to be the first person to elevate the back of the cue, which, when struck with appropriate force, allows the cue ball to spin around another ball: the massé shot. Of course, none of this would be possible without a textured tip. 

I find it fitting, somehow, that one of the most famous artistic shooters of the modern day is also French: Florian “Venom” Kohler. His world-record jump shots and beautiful, physics defying massé shots would never have been possible without the innovations of Francois Mingaud in Bicetre Prison. And I suspect Francois Mingaud would be astonished at the capabilities of modern day artistic pool shooters.