Thanks to its famous spinning wheel and varied odds, roulette ("small wheel" in French) has developed in to an iconic casino game over the years. After all, if I asked you to name just three casino games, I’m sure that roulette would be in that list (and let me guess, blackjack was one of the other two?).
So, with all the popularity it has acquired over the years, it’s hard to believe that roulette was actually invented by mistake.
The invention of roulette
Mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal accidentally invented the spinning roulette wheel in his attempt to invent the perpetual motion machine (circa 1645). Fortunately for energy companies, this was a feat he never quite managed to accomplish.
The development of the game
The earliest form of casino roulette was introduced in 1796 in Paris — a long time after Pascal’s failed perpetual motion machine. This was very similar to the game of roulette we play today, with it’s red and black pockets numbered from 1 to 36. These earlier versions of roulette also included the two green pockets of 0 and 00.
In 1843, two French brothers Francois and Louis Blanc developed the single 0 roulette wheel. This was to compete with other casinos at the time, as the presence of just the one 0 number meant that it offered better odds to the players (i.e. a lower house edge).
Legend also has it that the Blanc brothers sold their souls to the devil in exchange for the secrets of the roulette wheel, which comes from the fact that all the numbers from 1 to 36 add up to 666 (it’s true, try it). However, to be fair I don’t think that the Blanc brothers had the greatest bartering skills; I’d want a lot more than roulette wheel secrets in return for one soul.
Roulette in the 1800s
It was throughout the 1800s that the game of roulette gained its popularity. One hundred years is obviously quite a long time to gain popularity, but you have to remember that they didn’t have the luxury of TV and the Internet. Apparently, people used to communicate through written letters.
Nonetheless, from its early beginnings in Paris in 1796 to the Blanc brothers’ modifications in 1843, roulette went from being a completely new and unknown invention to being described as the “king of casino games”. It even captured the attention of Fyodor Dostoevsky for 8 years of his life.
Roulette was essentially the ball-point pen of the casino world, but clearly on a much slower scale.
The US went ahead and modified the roulette game to include an American Eagle (of course) in addition to the green 0 and 00, which gave the house an extra edge again. Unsurprisingly however, this version never caught on. Eventually the eagle was removed, leaving the 00 that can be found on standard American roulette tables today.
In the early 1870’s German law abolished gambling, so the Blanc family moved the casino operation to Monte Carlo, as it was the only place left in Europe where casino gambling was legal. It was also during this time that the single 0 on the roulette wheel became the dominant version of roulette (except in the US, where they were still holding on to that extra 00).
Roulette in the 20th century and beyond
Roulette continued to flourish throughout the 20th century.
American roulette still sports the 00, which gives the house the additional edge, whereas the rest of the world has become more accustomed to the single 0 wheel (commonly referred to as European roulette or French roulette).
Thanks to roulette making the transition in to the online world, the game is now more popular than ever. One major reason behind this boost is due to the fact that it is now accessible to people that do not have access to land-based casinos.
Here's a great write up on the first online casinos if you're interested in the early beginnings of roulette in the digital age.
So for now, it looks as though the popularity of roulette has hit its peak.