Though the game of roulette evolved over the course of a century in France in the 18th and 19th centuries and was based on the Italian game Biribi, the person who set the ball rolling, so to speak, is a rather important and famous historical figure named Blaise Pascal.
Pascal was born in France in the early 1600s and would grow up to become a renowned mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and theologian. He is perhaps best known for his work as a philosopher, in particular the philosophy of religion as in his young adulthood he had a major religious awakening and became a devoted Catholic.
Pascal may not exactly be a famous name outside of philosophical circles, but he is responsible for formulating a pragmatic proof for God – or at least, a proof for the worthiness of believing in God and heaven and hell – that is still popular today. “Pascal’s wager”, as it is known, boils down to how each person wagers his life on the existence of God and an afterlife and that if you live as if God exists and you’re proven wrong, you lose nothing, but if you live as if God does not exist and you’re proven wrong, you get eternal damnation.
It’s funny, that for someone who no doubt never actually gambled as it would have been against his faith, Pascal crafted his greatest religious idea on gambling. His creation of a prototypical form of the roulette wheel was even more of an unlikely accident as it stemmed from his great interest in physics.
In particular, like so many scientists of the time, he was intrigued by the idea of a perpetual motion machine – a hypothetical machine that would run forever without ever needing an external energy source. Perpetual motion machines are impossible because of the laws of thermodynamics, but the quest to create one was a driving force in the development of science and helped cement Pascal’s contributions to physics.
It’s not hard to see how the modern day roulette wheel can be traced back to a device that was created to keep a ball spinning around in a circle forever, presumably by making use of different tracks for the ball to keep switching between. The roulette wheel obviously isn’t a perpetual motion machine, not just because such things don’t exist but because it would be particularly difficult to bet on.
The fact that the ball does eventually slow down and then stop is kind of the point of roulette. It’s near impossible to predict how it will land or even how quickly the ball will slow down, which is what makes it so exciting and so perfect a device for gambling, but it’s probably not as substantial a long-shot as the one that Pascal made 400 years ago when he bet that the ball would just keep spinning forever and ever and ever.