by: Geoff Ficke

The Simple Mundane Product Invention that Changed a Sport and Created a Fortune

When I was a young boy growing up in Kentucky almost every town of any size had a drug store, a dry goods store, a grocer, a gas station and a billiards parlor.
At any time of the day local men and boys could be found whiling away the hours just hanging out, playing or watching games of pool played in the gray, poorly lit, smoky halls that held a few well-worn billiard tables.

In the mid-20th century billiards was an aging competitive game, dominated by the presence of renowned self-promoters such as the gloriously named Minnesota Fats. Occasionally Fats would appear in trick shoot competitions on television, but mostly, he barnstormed the country playing local exhibitions. The days of media coverage, renowned players and relatively big money competitions was long gone.

The golden age for the game of Billiards commenced after the Civil War. Tournaments where the best players competed were heavily promoted and common. Newspapers covered these events like they cover baseball today and Sporting Magazines devoted solely to pool were very successful. There was great interest in the sport and the top players played for big money and were household names on par with the Golfers, Tennis players and team sport athletes we know so well.

One of the great players of the “Golden Age of Billiards” was William A. Spinks. Spinks was more than a great Billiard champion. He was a great innovator in the sport and in other business disciplines. He perfected his playing skills in several versions of the sport, including: 18.2 balkline, 14.2 balkline, masse shots, artistic billiards and straight line billiards. He won numerous Championships and became famous while based in Cincinnati for challenging the other great cueists (as they were then known) of the day to head to head matches played for big money stakes.

Always seeking an edge, Spinks sought ways to impart more spin and control on the ball as he attempted his shots. To this end he used the pool cue chalk of the day. Cue chalk had been used since 1807. It helped the tip of the pool cue gain greater purchase on the ball as contact was made. Spinks sought a better performing product. To that end he began experimenting by co-mingling additional elements with chalk. While on a playing tour of Europe he was introduced to a substance with a different granularity than basic chalk thought to have come from the volcanic soil found around Mt. Etna. This began a series of chemical experiments.

The addition of silica and aloxite produced the cue chalk used to this day in virtually every pool, snooker or billiard game. William A. Spinks new cue chalk enabled players to impart more spin on shots if needed, add control and touch that had not been possible with the old dusty chalks. In 1897 he filed a patent on his product and launched William A. Spinks & Co. with a factory in Chicago. Spinks made a fortune from his invention and the Company that marketed his new product.

By the turn of the 19th Century William Spinks was a wealthy, famous man. Born into relative poverty, his new found wealth could have financed a life of leisure. He could have rested on his laurels. Instead he bought a ranch in Northern California and undertook new challenges.

Oil had just been discovered in Southern California. Spinks had been widely travelled and keenly understood the coming need for a rapid expansion in the transportation system for goods and people. He was one of the earliest investors in oil exploration and made another fortune.

The farm he owned near Duarte, CA was a working concern. Spinks described himself as a flower farmer. He became a prominent “pomology” horticulturist. His experimentations led him to develop an improved avocado. His ranch was expanded to become one of the largest avocado producers in California. The “Spinks Avocado Cultivar” he developed was a longer lasting fruit and was more resilient in cold weather than other avocado types. The Spinks Avocado would become the most popular avocado in the world for several decades until the Hass Avocado was perfected.

William A. Spinks also knew how to Sell and Market, both himself and his products. Today we take for granted an athlete or public person promoting a Consumer Product. In the late 19th century this was unknown. Spinks helped change this forever.

His Branding and Marketing Strategies enabled the Spinks Avocado to become the dominant avocado fruit sold in markets around the world. The President of China and Royal Gardens throughout Asia bought Spinks Avocado seedlings and spread the fame of the fruit through the aggressive promotion of William A. Spinks.

Today we would call a man such as William A. Spinks a Renaissance Man. He was successful in so many different fields. The game of billiards as a player and self-promoter, Sporting Good Inventor, Businessman, Marketer, Salesman, as an investor, a Floriculturist, Horticulturist, rancher and Inventor were only some of the areas that this great innovator mastered.

Largely forgotten today, W. A. Spinks is a wonderful example of the opportunity available to anyone who seeks success, identifies a way to provide a better Product or Service and is willing to work hard to achieve their goals. More people need to know and study the life and achievements of this visionary.

Author's Bio: 

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.

After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.

Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, ( has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.