Top technologies in sport: number 2

The invention of the lawnmower allowed the middle classes of 1860s Victorian Britain to create lawns for the exciting new game of croquet. Croquet was about to be eclipsed, however, by the new game of Lawn Tennis, patented by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield in 1873 as a game that came in a box.  Wingfield initially called his new game Sphairistike which unsurprisingly never caught on; the name ‘Lawn Tennis’ prevailed.  The pre-requisites to the success of the game, were a public with time and money to spare and flat lawns on which to play (see Technologies that changed sport: number 1).  Just one thing was missing — a ball that would bounce to the right height and was cheap enough to make.   This relied upon a previous invention contested by two rivals, Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock.

Figure 1. Cover to Wingfield’s first book on tennis in1873.

The vulcanisation of rubber

Hancock was born in Marlborough in 1786, becoming a coach builder in London.  His desire to keep his passengers dry put him in contact with a Glasgow chemist 20 years his senior called Charles Macintosh and together they obtained patents from 1822 onwards that used a mixture of India-rubber and naptha to waterproof raincoats (becoming universally known as Mackintoshes or, simply, macks).

Across the Atlantic, Charles Goodyear had been working on the stabilisation of rubber since the 1830s in Springfield Massachusetts, generally living hand to mouth and without much luck in his zeal for scientific success.   The problem with rubber was that it was brittle in winter and products made with it were reduced to a molten mess in summer.  After much trial and error, he secured a US patent on 8th January 1844 for a process that changed everything: applying heat and sulphur in the right quantities stablilised the material so that it could be used to make almost anything (he sometimes wore rubber hats, vests and ties).

Still, however, Goodyear was out of luck – Hancock had beaten him to it with a British patent of his own on 21st November 1843, just 8 weeks before Goodyear’s.  The word we now use for the process – vulcanisation – even came from a friend of Hancock’s rather than from Goodyear.    It must have been rather awkward, then, when both had displays at The Great Exhibition in 1851 with Goodyear’s floor to ceiling pavilion made of rubber.

The revolution of the India-rubber ball

Returning to sport, Goodyear and Hancock’s invention allowed Major Walter Clopton Wingfield to replace the hard, low bouncing real tennis balls used for indoor tennis with a long-lasting, India rubber ball (albeit imported from Germany).  His game of ‘Sphairistike’ was soon called ‘lawn tennis’ and was quickly exported to other countries across the Empire and Commonwealth.  The first All England Lawn Tennis Championships were held in 1877 in Wimbledon.

Equally as important was the use of vulcanised rubber in other sports.  By 1863 rugby and football had parted their ways and created their own sets of rules and competitions.  Richard Lindon replaced the pig’s bladders normally used for the interior of a football with artificial rubber bladders, at the same time necessitating the invention of the brass hand pump to blow it up.

Figure 2. Richard Lindon, inventor of the ‘Inflatable Rubber Bladder’ which went on to revolutionize ball sports.  The humour of the image is tempered by the fact that his wife (and mother of 17 children) died from blowing up diseased pig’s bladders through a clay pipe.

Sports for the masses

The ball is one of the most ubiquitous of pieces of sports equipment and to quote Simon Inglis from his book A load of old balls, ” we all have at least one old ball knocking around somewhere in our house or garden”.  The expansion of public parks, leisure time and the twin inventions of the lawn mower and vulcanised rubber allowed numerous ball sports to be played.  The inventions of Goodyear, Hancock and Lindon allow us to play tennis and football in all its forms (American, Australian, futsal, Gaelic, rugby league, rugby union and soccer).  Likewise, the simple inflated ball allowed the predominantly indoor sports of  basketball, handball, netball, racquet ball, squash and volleyball.

All we needed now was something to play in.  That will be the topic of Technologies that changed sport: number 3.

Further reading:

Simon Inglis, A load of old balls, pub English Heritage, 2005, pp 96.

About stevehaake

Steve is Professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University. He has a degree in Physics from the University of Leeds and a PhD from Aston University on the mechanics of golf balls on golf greens. He has over 200 publications, including his first book "Advantage Play: Technologies that changed Sporting History" due out in October 2018.