Table Tennis, or Ping Pong, the more whimsical name, has always seemed a simple and clement game on its surface.
It is, for the most part, but the game’s origins remain widely debated even among the game’s official sportsmen and rule makers.
The difference in names is itself much more than simple whimsy, it actually has much to do with, perhaps incorrectly, who held the rights to this name ‘Ping Pong’.
This is why the game has a few different names including its now widely recognized official name ‘Table Tennis’.
The game likely existed long before this copyright was even established, and the simple act of batting a small ball over a net can be hard to find one exact point of origin.
Behind the simple game of Table Tennis there lurks a myriad of mystery and lore that is debated and probably had a larger effect on politics and history then you may realize.
In this guide we are going to cover the curious and debated origins of the game – join us on this journey of curiosity, this is one rabbit hole you’ll be happy you went down.
Let’s Go Back To The Start…
It’s always best to start at the beginning. One thing Ping Pong historians can agree on is that the game probably started, surprisingly, somewhere in India in the 1800s.
One well understood piece of history is Britain’s colonial past.
It’s understood among the historians of the game that it was originally played by the British colonists while in India, some speculate it was played with the ‘natives’ who added their own twists to the game.
Reports suggested the game was played with a ball made of cork from a wine cork, with a row of books for the net, and a book as a bat. For younger readers, this is what happened when the internet didn’t exist.
Regardless, what many historians agree on is that it was played as a parlor game during the late 1800s.
The game was often played after dinner as a matter of fancy and humor, likely as a comically small version of tennis which had become established many years before table tennis emerged.
Historians suggest there was interest in the game as a comical after dinner activity, mainly among the European bourgeois.
Although when another aristocrat was famously shot in Sarajevo, the First World War broke out and games of whimsy were the last things on the mind of Europe’s elite.
Once the war was over, the game had another uptake post-war in Europe and the first trends of the sport began to be established during the 1920s.
Here lies the first point of discretion. Can we find a point of origin within these stories? Is the first person to hit a ball over a net on a table simply the person who invented table tennis?
The game likely existed before it was established as an official sport, but is that enough to establish invention?
Or, is it the money hungry salesman in the early 1900s who ‘invented’ the game? It seems further evidence is needed to establish who the real progenitor of the sport was.
Copyrights And Celluloid Balls
1901 was a pretty big year for the sport, all things considered, although thus began the discrepancy between ‘Ping Pong’ and ‘Table Tennis’.
While ‘Ping Pong’ had apparently been used onomatopoeically to describe the game for a long time, it was first trademarked in 1901 by British manufacturer Jaques and Son, who had also had exclusive manufacturing rights to chess since 1849, having also not invented the latter game.
While Jaques does claim to have created Ping Pong, they were one of the first to accommodate the game by selling its equipment.
Ping Pong was exclusively to be used when describing the game played with Jaques specific, and apparently expensive, equipment. Although this began to be challenged in Britain as
However, another, almost identical, sport existed at almost exactly the same time.
In 1890 David Foster’s ‘Parlor Table Games’ was perhaps the first version of ‘table tennis’ as we know it today, selling equipment for a much cheaper price.
Meanwhile, another British enthusiast of the game, James W Gibb, had innovated the celluloid ball for specific use in the game of table tennis.
This, in essence, is the same ball we use in the modern version of the game. A serious development. Jaques’ game, at the time, used a different ball.
In the same year, although seemingly not working together, E.C. Goode created an early version of what we would consider a modern table tennis racket, by combining a sheet of rubber with a wooden blade.
The bat changed over the years but this was the first move away from simply using a wooden racquet, which fired the ball away too hard rather than cushioning it as the rubber designed.
So, while Jaques is claiming their company invented Ping Pong, there are some major advancements in the game of table tennis that have a serious effect on what we consider the modern game of Table Tennis, as well as Ping Pong.
So, did Jaques create the game? You could argue it either way, but many don’t think he flat out invented the game, rather, he commercialized the parlor game to make money.
Associations, Federations And Competitions
In fact, the modern game of Table Tennis, which we can consider an official sport with rules, rather than the parlour game of Ping Pong, was created by a collection of enthusiasts and athletes who saw the entertainment and competitive potential of the game thanks to small inventions by its determined sportsmen.
By 1910, both a Table Tennis Association and Ping Pong Association existed – both games had almost exactly the same rules, similar to lawn tennis at this point.
It seems they were both vying to be seen as the official sport. However, by 1921 there was a Table Tennis Association officially founded, and an International Table Tennis Federation by 1926.
Conversely, in the world of Ping Pong, Jaques and Son sold their copyright to the Parker Brothers, who eventually created Monopoly, Ludo and other table games and became Hasbro.
The copyright for Ping Pong has been passed around the elite of the games industry for a while since Jaques original trademark.
The name ‘Ping Pong’ started to become the unofficial sport of Table Tennis.
Many people who became notable Table Tennis players report playing on the novelty sets sold under the name of Ping Pong before they entered the official and regulated sport of Table Tennis.
So, Ping Pong became a novelty game and Table Tennis emerged as a modern sport.
The first Table Tennis world championships were held unofficially in London 1902, reports suggest it followed rules similar to those of lawn tennis at the time.
The first official World Championships happened over 20 years later in 1926.
Some people think this is what led Jaques to sell his original trademark to the Ping Pong name as he realized Table Tennis had become the official sport and he had lost.
One of the biggest changes you can recognize in the modern game, as attributed by many historians of the sport, was the unlikely innovation of a Japanese player.
Hiroji Satoh was perhaps the best Table Tennis player during the 1950s, foreshadowing the Asian take over of the sport that we see today.
Satoh entered the 1952 competition with an unusual racquet, it was padded with rubber sponge, rather than the harder rubber that was being used across the sport at the time.
He won the competition with ease and blew most competition out the water with his innovative racquet, and changed the whole sport as we know it today.
Although not the best naturally gifted table tennis player, it was his innovation that took him to become the first Japanese champion of the sport – footage of his win is archived here.
This moment changed the sport forever.
This spongy addition to the rubber of the racquet was not only menacingly silent as Satoh dispatched the opposition but meant that a huge amount of spin and power could be administered to the celluloid ball without sending it flying.
This led to the speed of the game and spin technique that dominates the succession of the World Championships to this day.
When the sport hit the Olympics in the 1980s, this was the game people wanted to see – blisteringly fast games dominated by the skill of well practiced athletes who could spin the ball with record speed.
Ping Pong, on the other hand, became completely eclipsed by the emergence of Table Tennis.
This happened to the extent that the terms were used so interchangeably that whoever held onto the trademark of the original name was privy only to the small fiscal privilege, rather than the historical moments of the game’s history.
So, who invented the game? Not to be that guy, but, there isn’t really a clear answer. The best answer is the British.
It was likely first played by British officers stationed in colonial India who created the game with cork balls fashioned from a wine cork, and hit it at each other with a book.
It was likely a rudimentary locking of competitive horns at this point rather than the game of skill it is now.
Jaques and Foster were the first people to create salable versions of the equipment in the late 1800s, Jaques was Team Ping Pong, and Foster was Team Table Tennis.
Neither really pioneered the sport, it seems, rather, that they took advantage of the game as a moneymaker, fighting over trademarks and prices, rather than pioneering the modern game.
Those who pioneered the game we know today are the enthusiasts who wanted to actually see the game become an official sport.
You could look at any of the Brits who founded the Table Tennis Association in the 1920s, Gibb popularizing use of the celluloid ball, or even Goode who fashioned a more modern racquet.
It was perhaps Hiroji Satoh who truly, if not purposefully, played the game as it is recognized today in the modern world.
Anyone can hit a ball across a table, it’s the skill and innovation of the enthusiasts of Table Tennis who really made the sport what it is today.
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