The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 30, 2002

Marbles are not for children only
Shirish Joshi

NOBODY has the faintest idea when the first marbles rolled across the earth’s surface, but small stones, deliberately chipped and rounded, have been unearthed at Stone Age excavations on three continents.

Today, marbles from ancient Rome and Greece are occupy places of honour in places like the British Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Shakespeare mentions "Cherry Pit," a game of marbles; marbles appear in a Picter Bruegel painting and are referred to by the Roman poet, Ovid.

Marbles are small, hard balls that are used in a variety of children’s games and are so named after the 18th century practice of making them from marble chips. Marble games date back to antiquity and ancient games were played with sea-rounded pebbles, nuts, and seeds of some fruits.

The young Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus), like other Roman children, played games with nut-marbles, and engraved marbles have been dug up from the earthen mounds built by some early North American Red Indian tribes.


Early settlers in the USA found the Red Indians playing marble games with what archaeologists now refer to as "game stones."

The object of marble games is to roll, throw, drop, or knuckle marbles against an opponent’s marbles, often to knock them out of a prescribed area and so win them. (Knuckling is the act of placing a marble on the forefinger, balancing that finger or the bottom of the hand against the ground, and shooting the marble outward with the thumb.)

Year after year, nearly 200 million marbles are turned out by the mixing, shaping and rolling machines of marble making factories. The demand for marbles is constantly increasing. In addition to children’s games, like knuckling, marbles are also used in numerous other games. Chinese Checkers, a perennially popular game, requires 60 marbles for each game, 10 each of six different colours.

In the 20th century, marbles have been made of a variety of materials: baked clay, glass, steel, plastic, onyx, agate.

During World War II, engineers perfected the little glass balls to such a degree that they could be substituted for steel bearings. Tons of these glass balls go to lithographers and engravers, to be used in smoothing the surface of copper printing plates.

Special marbles are made for this purpose, to withstand the punishment of being rolled back and forth over the metal surfaces.

Many highway signs are made of marbles. Each glass ball has an individual reflector behind it, so that headlights at night will spell out safety warnings.

In the oil fields, refineries use acid-proof marbles as filters and condensers. The glass balls are injected into old oil wells to prepare them for possible further use. Consequently, millions of dollars worth of oil can now be recovered.

Some fish hatcheries place marbles on the bottom of pools, claiming better results during the spawning season. Paper mills now use glass balls in their manufacturing units. Only recently has it been found out that marbles are, highly useful in the spinning of glass thread.

Some time in 1948, a telegram from Johannesburg, South Africa, reached a marble manufacturing factory in the US requesting a shipment of 100,000 marbles in "three-colour strip combinations on opalescent glass."

A troublesome situation had developed in the interior of Africa. Warring natives had captured currency-marbles. The new shipment was needed to replace the old medium of exchange.

Marbles have helped an American to win election. The candidate had a company produce for him individual boxes of marbles, bearing-his name for distribution. Word spread rapidly through this constituency and the people came out in large numbers to hear his speech, and to take marbles home for the children. He won by a decisive margin.

And last, but not the least, when life comes to an end and the mortal remains are placed in a modern mausoleum, a dozen or so marbles are thrown by the mourners onto the tomb, so that the coffin will roll easily into place.

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