The Roulette Wheel: Blaise Pascal’s Fortunate Accidental Invention

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A Brief History

The 17th century French physicist and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, is known for many important contributions to both fields, which is particularly impressive considering the fact that he died at the really quite young age of 39. Among his proudest achievements were inventing the early mechanical calculator, creating the mathematical theory now known as Pascal’s triangle, and major studies and research into fluids, with one particularly important experiment into hydraulics remembered today as Pascal’s barrel. But there was one other exceptional contribution he made to society as a whole, and one that he bizarrely isn’t remembered nearly as much for.

Digging Deeper

In his ambition to create a perpetual motion machine — or in other words a machine that would not stop moving once it had begun, even without an energy source — Pascal accidentally invented what we would now call a roulette wheel. Of course, this “roulette wheel” was an early version and did not have the numbers, but the principal was set and ready for innovators to come along to find a way to gamble on it.

Painting of Blaise Pascal made by François II Quesnel for Gérard Edelinck in 1691

Now, you can have a spin whenever and wherever you want, and it has the same feel to it as if it were real life. For example, online roulette on Casino Cruise has a number of different options, from Immersive Roulette, which has a lifelike feel, to American Roulette, which is more obviously a virtual experience. In his pursuit of a perpetual motion machine, Pascal surely did not picture people using his invention as the basis for a game that they could play from their beds.

Admittedly the ability to gamble on the wheel came a bit later than Pascal’s invention, when the wheel was crossed with another French game called Biribi, which was a gambling game that relied on a similar idea to roulette but was not dynamic in that way that modern roulette is. The modern form of roulette has been played since the end of the 18th century and, perhaps in part because of the fact that he invented the rudimentary machine used for the game, rather than the game itself, Blaise is rarely spoken about in connection to the game.

Tableau for Biribi (1788)

Of course, this is all because roulette has taken on a different face since the end of the 18th century. For starters, gambling in casinos with roulette wheels has become cheaper and less snobby throughout the years, and so is enjoyed by far more people. Back in the 1800s, when you wanted to try your luck on the roulette wheel, it would require certainly leaving the house, but probably also dressing up in your smartest suit, having a shave and getting a taxi. But, much more importantly, the rise of online casinos has changed the face of gambling forever.

Any fan of roulette should know the name of Blaise Pascal, but unfortunately, that is not the case. Sure, it is partly to do with the fact that he made so many other great contributions in his field, but this is the one that many people have profited — both literally and figuratively — from in the most identifiable and understandable way. So next time you win, spare a thought for Pascal, without whom it would not be possible.

An illustration of the (apocryphal) Pascal’s barrel experiment

Question for students: What do you think is Pascal’s greatest accomplishment?

Bonus joke:

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Pascal, Blaise.  Histoire de la roulette (Nouvelle édition augmentée).  Arvensa Editions, 2015.

Histoire de la roulette (Nouvelle édition augmentée) – Arvensa Editions (French Edition) (Kindle Edition)


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The featured image in this article, a photograph by German civil engineer and photographer Ralf Roletschek of a roulette ball, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.  You are free:

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About Author

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.