Top technologies in sport: Number 1

As a starting point for the beginning of modern sport, Victorian Britain is a pretty safe bet.  Which technologies helped create modern sport as we know it?  My next few articles will take you through the top technologies I think were crucial for the development of sport — and they’re not necessarily the ones you might think of.   The first invention I’d like to draw your attention to was first patented in 1830 by the grandly named Edwin Beard Budding.

A lawn mower from 1880.

My first choice as a shaper of modern sport is the humble lawn mower, that we all have seen at our local mower parts dealer. Until Budding came along, grass cutting was a rather intensive process requiring experts with hand scythes.  Budding apparently got his idea from bench mounted machines used to cut the irregular nap of woollen materials produced in his home county of Gloucestershire.  The devices had a rotary cutting cylinder and Budding spotted the parallels with grass cutting.  He may even have been struck by the dual use of the word ‘lawn’ which has different roots to a smooth flat surface:

Lawn (noun):

“thin linen or cotton cloth,” early 15c., probably from Laon, city in northern France, a center of linen manufacture. The town name is Old French Lan, from Latin Laudunum, of Celtic origin;

Lawn (noun):

“turf, stretch of grass,” 1540s, laune “glade, open space between woods,” from Middle English launde (c.1300), from Old French lande “heath, moor, barren land; clearing” (12c.), from Gaulish (cf. Breton lann “heath”), or from its Germanic cognate, source of English land (n.). The -d perhaps mistaken for an affix and dropped. Sense of “grassy ground kept mowed” first recorded 1733 (source Etymonline).

Budding has also been credited with the invention of the adjustable spanner (or monkey wrench) – presumably to allow adjustments and repairs to a lawn mower in the middle of a field.

Sport for the middle classes

Budding’s lawnmower allowed sport to be played on flat lawns and prompted outdoor sports for the rapidly expanding British middle classes.   This fuelled the craze of croquet on the newly manicured lawns and it is probably no coincidence that the first croquet championships were held in Moreton-in-the-Marsh in Gloucestershire  — the English headquarters of the game are still in Cheltenham.  The All England Croquet Club was launched in 1868 in Wimbledon, but croquet was soon eclipsed by the more exciting and dynamic game of lawn tennis.  The club’s name was changed within a decade to All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.  To allow that to happen, though, another invention had to be exploited: that will appear in Technologies that created sport: Number 2.


About stevehaake

Steve did a first degree in Physics at the University of Leeds before landing two job offers: the first with BT turned out to be in a porta-cabin in the middle of a marsh, while the second was supposed to be image processing but was really smart-bomb design. This left a third option – a PhD in the mechanics of golf ball impacts on golf greens for a person who’d never hit a golf ball. It was a simple choice (the PhD if you didn’t guess) which led 25 years later to being head of a research team of 30-40 looking into similarly unlikely topics. Highlights of the career so far? The early years setting up the ISEA with the likes of Steve Mather, Ron Thompson, Clive Grant and Ron Morgan; the fact that the 1st International Conference on Sports Engineering in Sheffield in 1996 didn’t also turn out to be the last; and getting out the first issue of the first journal on Sports Engineering in 1998. The absolute high point, though, was being in the British Club in Singapore as a guest of the High Commission when the bid for the 2012 Olympics was announced. This has led to the team delivering projects with Olympic athletes that every scientist with a love of sport can only dream of. Steve is now a Senior Media Fellow funded by the EPSRC to encourage the public to engage in science, particularly in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

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