A Brief History Of Table Tennis

Table tennis has been around for over 140 years and in that time a lot has changed since its humble beginnings being played in homes by the upper classes to now being played by millions of players in hundreds of countries all over the world. In this post, we’re going to take look at the history of table tennis and cover some of the notable dates and changes.

Who invented table tennis?

Table tennis (or Ping Pong as it is more commonly known in the US) was invented in 1880s Victorian England. It was an adaptation the popular game lawn tennis as a way of continuing to play inside during the winter when it was too cold to play outside. It caught on very quickly being a lot more accessible for people to play at home as they didn’t need a big outside space. 

Lots of games companies began marketing sets that came with nets, bats and balls. Back then the game went by a lot of different names depending on the company that was selling the equipment. Some of the names that it was known by are:

  • Ping-Pong or Gossima
  • Table Tennis
  • Whiff Waff
  • Pom-Pom
  • Pim-Pam
  • Lots of others

Eventually, Ping Pong and Table Tennis stuck and in 1901 The Ping Pong Association and The Table Tennis Association were formed.

Trademark issues

After seeing the game become so popular, J. Jaques & Son Ltd, a British manufacturer, trademarked the name Ping-Pong worldwide. This meant that other manufacturers had to refer to the game as Table Tennis (or a different name) on any products they produced to avoid infringing on the trademark

The same happened in the US where Jaques sold the trademark rights to the Parker Brothers who made sure that other companies and associations weren’t referring to it as Ping-Pong.

Parker Brothers Ping-Pong game” Image licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Early equipment

The equipment used has evolved a lot of the last 140 years since it was first created and looked a lot different from the bats and tables we’re used to seeing today. The technology and materials available at the time weren’t nearly as advanced as those available now.

Early table tennis tables

Originally table tennis was played on dining room or billiards tables. Players would set up nets across the table and some times even nets at the sides to catch the ball. It’s thought that in India the British army would make their own tables using a row of books for the net, more books as makeshift paddles and then a golf ball!

Early table tennis bats

The bats used came in a variety of different styles, shapes and sizes. The common ones were made out of wood and covered in vellum canvas that was stretched across the wooden frame. This is how ping pong got its name as the sounds made when the ball hit the bat were at different pitches.

This video below shows the huge variety of different sets that were available at the time.

It wasn’t until 1900 that E.C Goode invented a paddle that is more recognizable to us today. He was the first to use a sheet of rubber on top of the wooden blade but it wasn’t until a lot later that sponge was used between the blade and the rubber.

Early table tennis balls

There were various different types of balls of different sizes and made using different materials. Pre 1900 they were often made out of cork or rubber but they weren’t ideal as the bounce of the rubber ball was too unpredictable (can you imagine trying to play with a rubber ball) and the cork ball not enough. 

Then in 1901 James W. Gibb discovered celluloid balls whilst visiting the US which was perfect for the game. A 38mm ball made from celluloid quickly became the standard and was used all the way up until very recently when in 2000 the ball size increased to 40mm. Then in 2014 balls started to be made out of plastic instead.

For more information about the evolution of the table tennis ball, we recommend you check out this post from Table Tennis 11 that goes into a lot more detail.

The 1920’s to 1950’s: Europe dominates in the hard bat era

Whilst table tennis went out of style around 1903, in the 1920s it experienced a revival. Standardized rules began to be introduced and adopted which helped it to grow more and more in popularity. Then, in 1926 the ITTF (The International Federation of Table Tennis) was formed in Berlin and the first-ever world championships were held in England.

The period between 1920 and 1950 is known as the Classic Hard Bat era due to the lack of sponge on the rackets at the time. European players generally were dominant in terms of competition wins over these decades.

In 1936, a few rule changes were brought in by the ITTF such as increasing the height of the nets to 6 & ¾ inches and painting the tables. This resulted in slowing the game down a lot which made it harder for attacking players. Amazingly during the World Championships in Prague that year, there was a rally which lasted over 2 hours, the longest ever rally during a world championship game.

1950’s to the 1970s: The east dominates in the sponge bat era

The 1950s saw a big change in the technology used in table tennis bats. Japanese player Hiroji Satoh had a racket which used a layer of foam sponge rubber which resulted in him being able to develop a lot more speed and spin and he won the 1952 world championships.

The sport had become hugely popular in Asia and players from countries such as China, Japan and Korea began to dominate the podiums during world championships.

Ping Pong Diplomacy

Table tennis became political in the 1970s when a friendly exchange between Chinese and American players led to an exchange of players and even a visit to China by President Nixon in what became known as Ping Pong Diplomacy. This opened the doors between the two countries during the cold war and the embargo on China was lifted.

1970’s to 2000s: Speed glue and the rise of Sweeden

In the 1970s some experimentation with bicycle tyre repair glue to apply the rubber to the bat led to players being able to generate a lot more speed and spin with their rackets. This became known as speed glue and is generally credited to Yugoslavian Dragutin Surbek and Hungarian Tibor Klampar.

Even so, the first two decades of this period started like the last, with China dominating the world championships in both the men’s and women’s events. But, China’s dominance was brought to an end in 1989 with Sweedish players winning the 1989, 1991 and 1993 team events plus two Men’s World Championship titles in 1989 and 1991.

Table tennis becomes an Olympic sport

Over the whole of the 20th century, table tennis had been growing in popularity and it finally became an Olympic sport when it first featured in the 1988 Korean Olympic games in Seoul. Now the sport is loved all over the world by as many as 875 million people!

Summing up

Anyway, we hope that’s helped explain a bit more about the origins of table tennis. To see all the important dates in the sport’s history check out this very handy table tennis timeline of events or we’d recommend having a look at some of the great images from the ITTF website.

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