I’ve often wondered, if I were to write a history of sports technology, when I should start? In 774 BC at the inception of the Ancient Olympic Games? Or in 300 AD at the height of the Roman Empire? By this time the Games had expanded to include the pentathlon, racing in armour and even chariot racing. One might argue for the reign of Henry VIII and his love of sports such as tennis and ‘the tilt’ (jousting) and his famous Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 where hundreds travelled to Northern France for probably the most opulent ‘multi sports event’ the world had ever seen. I’m going to ignore all these, however, and fast forward in time to the industrial revolution.
The Great Exhibition
I shall nominate the 19th Century as the period when modern sport – and its technology – really took off. I’m going to be even more specific and identify one date: the 1st of May 1851. On this day Queen Victoria opened The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in Hyde Park in London, the first world’s fair to showcase excellence in engineering, agriculture, manufacture and commerce. The Exhibition was held in a temporary Crystal Palace, designed and built within 6 months at a cost of £200,000 (£17.4 million in 2013’s money) and moved later to the south of London.
In the North Trancept Gallery, under “Miscellaneous Manufactures and Wares (Class 29)” and surrounded by soap, stuffed birds and fishing tackle, were a dozen exhibits of sports equipment (see Figure 2 for the manufacturers). The main representative for sport was cricket with names such as Duke & Son and Lillywhite & Sons displaying cricket bats, balls, gloves, stumps, shoes and even catapults for training “in the absence of a first-rate bowler“. Gilbert’s “Footballs of leather dressed expressly for the purpose” were for rugby football rather than association football, which was still 12 years away from being created.
Other equipment shown off consisted of archery (“English long bows for ladies and gentlemen, composed of different rare woods, viz., rosetta, tulip, snake, partridge, purple, kingwood and hickory“), golf balls from J Gourlan of Edinburgh (“for playing the ancient Scottish game of Golf“) and tennis racquets. The latter were probably for the ancient game of real (or Royal) tennis played by Henry VIII rather than the lawn tennis we know today — this was over 20 years away from being invented.
The dawn of the modern age of sport
Putting this in context, the Great Exhibition took place in a rapidly expanding London: in 1800, it had a population of around 1 million and was on its way to becoming the largest city in the world — which it achieved in 1900, with a population of 6.7 million. In terms of science, the Industrial Revolution was well under way, with railways a reality and the first underground railway about to be built.
In the 1870s and shortly after, Britain went on to develop many of the sports we recognise today – football, rugby, tennis and golf being just a few – and then export them to the rest of the world via the British Empire. It seems to me, then, that The Great Exhibition of 1851 is not a bad starting point in time for the sports technologies that we can buy today in a Lillywhites store.