Pascal and Roulette

How one man's quest for perpetual motion led to the most popular game in history

Attempting to trace the history of games can be a confusing business. Many of the games that are popular today are amalgamations of various ideas that have been joined, spliced and altered across the years. It leads to a complex and confusing mix of myths and legends and often, it is next to impossible to tell fact from fiction.

Roulette, however, is another matter. Today, it is one of the most popular casino games of them all, and while modern day players love to argue over the merits of Online Roulette vs Live Roulette, there is general consensus regarding its history. It can be traced from today's online casinos back through the drawing rooms of pre-revolutionary France and from there to the late 1600s and the mathematical experiments of one of the most influential mathematicians in history, Blaise Pascal.

About Blaise Pascal

Born in the French prefecture of Clermont-Ferrand in 1623, Pascal was a child prodigy who was making waves in the world of fluid dynamics while still a teenager. He invented the first mechanical calculator in the 1640s and his work on binomial coefficients is familiar to students the world over in the form of Pascal's triangle.

The incredible thing about Pascal is that he all but abandoned mathematical research at the age of 31, after a religious experience inspired him to take his studies in different directions. In the subsequent years, he contributed to the fields of hydrostatics and hydrodynamics, as well as writing at length on philosophy and religion.

Pascal had been in poor health for most of his life and died at the age of just 39. The exact cause of death will never be known, but stomach cancer, tuberculosis or a combination of the two seem most likely. Months before he died, he contributed one last invention to the world the carrosses a  cinq sols is generally acknowledged to be the world's first public transportation system.

Blaise Pascal and the roulette wheel

So what led the most famous philosopher, scientist and mathematician of his day to invent a gambling instrument? In the mid 1650s, he had become obsessed with the idea of perpetual motion, probably through his continued development of Evangelista Torricelli's work on dynamics.

As part of his research, he created a spinning wheel that had 36 sections at 10 degree intervals. He fell short of achieving perpetual motion in a scientific sense, but this, with the addition of the zeros, went on to become the roulette wheel that remains so popular to this day.

It is just one of a dozen or more reminders of this remarkable man and his achievements that are with us almost 400 years on. His name is given to a computer programming language and the SI unit of pressure, while Pascal's Wager and Pascal's Law are fundamental principles in mathematics and hydrostatics. As a philosopher, if Pascal was around today, he might well look back and see that he did achieve a form of perpetual motion after all.
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