The history of the game we know as ping pong most likely originated in Victorian England, the period of Queen Victoria’s reign over the country that began in the summer of 1837 and continued until her demise in the winter of 1901.
This era followed the Georgian period, in which King George ruled the country, and directly preceded the Edwardian period of English history. Moreover, the latter half of the Victorian era overlaps with the initial stage of the Belle Époque era of Continental Europe.
During this Victorian era, the sport of lawn tennis, which was modernized between 1859 and 1865 in England, was hugely popular and played regularly by the British elite. Someone came up with the idea to develop an indoor version of the game so it could be played even in bad weather and in the nighttime hours, which brought us our first version of ping pong, although a crude version to say the least.
Another version of the game’s origin is that British military officers who were stationed in places like India and South Africa in the mid 19th century developed the game as a way to pass the time in their posts. They then brought the game back with them when they returned to England.
Whichever version happens to be true, the original Victorian era form of ping pong was played almost exclusively by the upper class and royalty of Britain as an after-dinner parlor game. The table was then made exclusively from wood and a row of books were substituted for the middle net.
In some cases, other books served as the paddles to hit a golf ball back and forth across the net; in other cases, it was the wooden backing from cigar boxes that were used for paddles instead.
In the late 19th century, there were a few different inventors who attempted to patent or trademark the game of ping pong (table tennis). According to statistics held by the International Table Tennis Foundation, the first of these inventors was a man named James Devonshire from England, who attempted to place a patent on the game he named “table tennis” back in 1885.
However, records show that by 1887 he had abandoned his patent efforts. Another Englishman did succeed with a patent, however. According to statistics, David Foster is the person who patented the first and earliest surviving table tennis set in the year 1890.
In 1901, a man named John Jacques, who was the owner and founder of the English sports manufacturing company known as John Jacques and Son Ltd., was credited with officially commercializing ping pong.
Through his company, Jacques created the official rules for “his” game, which at the time he called “Gossima,” and began selling equipment to the general public. Meanwhile, other competitors began coming up with their own versions of the game. These less-than-successful versions took on names like “Whiff-Whaff” and “Flim-Flam,” but they never really took off.
Unfortunately, Gossima never took off as a game either, so John Jacques rebranded his game as “Ping Pong.” The name was meant to mimic the sound the balls made when they bounced.
According to legend, it was Jacques who also introduced the now-ubiquitous celluloid Ping Pong ball, which replaced the original cork and rubber golf balls that were once used—balls that were much bulkier and more difficult to hit.
The new celluloid balls were the discovery of a man names James W. Gibb, a British enthusiast of ping pong, who found the novelty celluloid balls on a trip to the United States in 1901. He found them to be ideal for ping pong and brought them back to Britain. This new ball became the gold standard among players, making the game much easier to play.
The new ball was also responsible for the surge in popularity with regard to the game, and people everywhere started to play ping pong for the first time, both recreationally and in tournaments.
Not long after the celluloid ball was introduced to the ping pong world, a man by the name of E.C. Goode invented the modern ping pong racket in 1901. His racket was made by applying a sheet of pimpled or stippled rubber to the wooden blade or paddle.
Over time, Jacques of Jacques and Son Ltd. gave up the game rights to ping pong to an English game distributor called Hamley Brothers and the American board game company Parker Brothers. Since these two companies now owned the game known as “ping pong,” others who attempted to emulate it had to legally call it by another name, such as table tennis and the like.
There were a number of countries around the world, and many players, who stuck with the name “table tennis,” a name by which the game was originally called when first patented. Because of this, separate “Ping Pong” and “Table Tennis” Associations were formed, and sometimes the games even had different rules listed. (The Table Tennis Association and Ping-Pong Association, which were both formed in England in 1901, eventually merged into one group before dissolving in 1904).
Ping pong continued to gain in popularity throughout the early years of the 20th century, and in 1921 the official Table Tennis Association was founded, which was renamed the English Table Tennis Association in 1926. Finally, the International Table Tennis Federation was formed, also in 1926.
The first World Championships for ping pong were held in London in 1926—a very busy year for the sport. At that event, a woman by the name of Maria Mednyanszky of Hungary won the Women’s Singles event, the first of five in a row for the Eastern European superstar.
In 1933, the United States Table Tennis Association was formed, which is now known simply as USA Table Tennis.
During the 1930s, a man named Edgar Snow, an American journalist renowned for his books and articles on Communism in China and the Chinese Communist revolution, commented in the publication Red Star over China that the Communist forces in the Chinese Civil War had a “passion for the English game of table tennis,” which at the time he called “bizarre. “
Meanwhile, the popularity of the sport was waning considerably in the 1930s Soviet Union. This was partly because of the “promotion of team and military sports, and partly because of a theory that the game had adverse health effects on players (now that is “bizarre”).”
In 1938, the International Table Tennis Federation lowered the net on the ping pong table from 6¾ inches to 6 inches. The Federation also banned the fingerspin serves which had been used with devastating effects by American players. Between the years of 1940 and 1946, no World Championship events were held because of World War II.
It was during the 1950s that the dominance of table tennis changed from Europe and America to the Far East. In the 1952 World Championships, Hiroji Satoh of Japan became famous for his use of a wooden racket covered in thick foam sponge rubber.
This type of racket produced much more speed and spin than conventional pimpled rubber rackets. Satoh went on to win the 1952 World Championships over Jozsef Koczian of Hungary, which began a period of Asian male domination in the sport which would last until Sweden rose to prominence from 1989 into the early 1990’s.
The same type of racket used by Satoh in the 1952 World Championships was introduced to Britain by sports goods manufacturer S.W. Hancock Ltd. On that racket, the use of speed glue increased the spin and speed even further, resulting in changes to the equipment to “slow the game down”.
In 1998, table tennis was introduced as an Olympic sport at the Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea. Two Koreans, Yoo Nam-kyu and Kim Ki-taik, placed first and second in the men’s singles category, followed by Erik Lindh of Sweden.
Following the Sydney, Australia-held Olympic Games in the year 2000, several rules were changed in the sport. These changes were intended to make ping pong a better sport to watch on television.
The first change involved the size of the ball, going from 38 millimeters in diameter to 40 mm. They also changed from a 21-point scoring system to an 11-point scoring system, and instituted best of five and best of seven matches.
In 2003, Werner Schlager of Austria broke the Chinese stranglehold on the Men’s Singles World Championship title, saving several match points along the way against opponents in Wang Liqin and Kong Linghui. He met Joo Se Hyuk of South Korea in the final – Joo is the first defensive player to make the Men’s Singles final since the Eberhard Scholer of Germany in 1969 (Scholer also lost in his final, to Japan’s Shigeo Itoh).
Today ping pong continues to be popular around the globe. Some purists of the game believe only amateurs and hacks call the sport “ping pong.”
They go on to say that, as serious practitioners of the sport, the game should always be called “table tennis” because of its history as an alternative to lawn tennis way back in Victorian England.
Still, the term ping pong lives on and probably will for eternity.