Rubber ball 1874
Diameter 5,6 cm
Weight 60 g
If croquet owes its emergence to the lawn mower, lawn tennis be forever indebted to Charles Goodyear, an impoverished American investor whose experiments with rubber, initially conducted whilst in gaol for debt, led to his discovery, in 1839, of the process he called vulcanisation. Until then natural rubber had turned sticky in hot temperatures and brittle in cold. Now it could retain its spring, whatever the season.
Goodyear’s name has since lived on mainly in relation to tyres. But in sport, vulcanisation had a profound effect, not least in billiards, where it ended the need for table cushions to be warmed with hot water pans before play could commence.
The old established game of tennis, meanwhile played indoors by mainly wealthy individuals, had for centuries depended on the slight bounce achieved by stuffed balls on a hard surface. Now, thanks to vulcanisation, from the 1850s onwards German factories started making air-filled rubber balls that offered real bounce, even on grass.
According to most accepted sources the first players to test out these new ball were a solicitor, Harry Gem, and a Spanish trader, Jean Pereira, on Pereira’s croguet lawn in Birmingham in 1859.
Apparently one drawback on firmer ground was excessive bounce, requiring some early exponents to pierce the rubber with hot needles.
But it was a leading player of ‘real tennis’ who, ironically, did most to influence the eventual form of the ball. Within months of the first set of lawn tennis rules being patented by a Major Walter Clopton Wingfield in 1874, JM Heathcote informed readers of The Field that if covered in white flannel – such as was made in Melton Mowbray – the rubber balls bounced more evenly, were more controllable in flight, and easier to see.
And so it was that a combination of American ingenuity, German manufacturing and fine Leicestershire cloth finally put tennis out to grass, where it has prospered ever since.