If you’ve ever played tennis, you know the importance of a quality tennis ball. From picking one up from the store to practicing your serve, the tennis ball is essential for any game.
But how did the tennis ball end up in our lives? Let’s take a look back at how this sport staple came to be.
You may not realize that we owe it all to William T Renshaw. He was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in America in 1878 with his brother and father. He later founded a sporting goods company called Spalding and created the first rubber and gutta-percha ball based on earlier experiments with rubber cores by British engineer Thomas Hancock, who had been experimenting with rubber coated cloth balls since 1875. The next step was to create a felt cover for this new invention, but it was soon discovered that regular wool didn’t have enough elasticity to withstand the tension caused by bouncing a ball on it.
William G Morgan
The first ball with an alternating band of rubber and wool was created by William G Morgan, an inventor from Ohio. He’s said to have had the idea for the rubber core after noticing that his children liked to bounce a ball made from a rubber-covered belt. But this new invention wasn’t without its drawbacks, such as the increased cost of manufacturing balls with wool coverings.
In 1883, Spalding patented a machine to manufacture their ball with the name “Spalding’s Indoor Tennis Balls.” This marked the first time that a machine produced a ball in America. The term indoor tennis balls became popular because they were used almost exclusively indoors due to their high price tag.
In 1922, Spalding created another machine that could produce balls cheaper and more efficiently than hand-made ones. And in 1957, Wilson Sporting Goods acquired Spalding and renamed it Wilson Sporting Goods Manufacturing Company.
How it all began
William T Renshaw was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in America in 1878 with his brother and father. William later founded a sporting goods company called Spalding, which created the first rubber and gutta-percha ball based on earlier experiments with rubber cores by British engineer Thomas Hancock, who had been experimenting with rubber coated cloth balls since 1875. The next step was to create a felt cover for this new invention, but it was soon discovered that regular wool didn’t have enough elasticity to withstand the tension caused by bouncing a ball on it.
It was Mr. Renshaw's idea to use cotton as it had more elasticity than wool. They experimented with sewing strips of cotton cloth together then cutting them into circles and sewing them onto the rubber core. This is how the first tennis ball was born!
The discovery of rubber
Renshaw learned of Charles Goodyear’s discovery of vulcanized rubber and traveled to Massachusetts to purchase the patent. Returning to Chicago, he worked with a tennis player and American inventor John Van Wormer who had recently invented a machine for stretching felt over a mold. The result was a ball that bounced very high when dropped from height.
Unfortunately, the rubber balls were so expensive that Renshaw had difficulty drumming up business interest. Luckily, however, in 1880 he found an investor named Albert Ellis who agreed to fund his company on the condition that he be allowed to produce two-thirds of the output.
The first Spalding balls came off the production line in 1881 and were an immediate success. They proved popular at outdoor carnivals and amusement parks all over America and even made their way overseas to England where they were first seen at Wimbledon in 1884. From there it spread throughout Europe and quickly became one of the most popular sports around.
How should you cover a tennis ball?
In 1883, Mr. Renshaw hired a craftsman to design and make an individual cover that would fit tightly over the ball but still allow some elasticity. The man was Mr. P.G. Thompson of Spalding who experimented with different materials before deciding on felt made from wool and cotton filaments which he called “Spalding’s New Patented Woolen Cotton Felt” and patented it in 1885.
The history of the tennis ball is incomplete without a mention of its inventors. Who were these ingenious minds? And how was it that they discovered the perfect material to cover a tennis ball?
The tennis ball, as we know it today, has come a long way. So, after reading this article, you might be wondering: who invented the tennis ball?
Well, that all depends on who you ask. The answer is never straightforward. Some say that William G Morgan invented the tennis ball, while others claim that it was his wife. Still others contend that British army officer Lieutenant-Colonel James D. Morgan was the mastermind behind this invention. So, in reality, it's impossible to say for sure.