The History of Ping Pong (Timeline)

The history of table tennis began in 19th century England. It was in 1885 when some of the earliest equipment started being made during the Victorian Era. Table tennis was actually an adaptation of the popular upper-class game of English lawn tennis. People wanted to keep playing the game during the winter, but it was too cold to play outside so they invented an indoor 

The game of table tennis became even more popular in the 1890s and there were quite a lot of different names for it, including the odd term, “gossima”. This form of the game used both rubber balls and cork balls, but this made the bounces of the balls inconsistent, and most of the first versions of the equipment sold badly.

The next major development was when the sports company J. Jaques & Son dubbed the game “ping pong”, and under this name, the game became a real hit in 1901–02 in the United Kingdom and then in America and beyond. The game became almost de rigeur at most of the fashionable parties of the day.

Parker Brothers then bought the American rights to the trademark name of ping pong, which prevented anybody else from using the name ping pong. Despite that, “ping pong” is still the best way of referring to table tennis in the USA. When the name table tennis was trademarked in 1926 by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), people started using both names to talk about the same game. 

Today, there are many people that compete in clubs, leagues, tournaments, and cup competitions all over the world. There is an official table tennis association (also known as ping pong association) and table tennis is even part of the Olympic Games and it is recognized in world championships as a competitive game. Below, we’ll take a quick look at how this came to be the case.

Some Early Paddle Designs

early ping pong equipment

The first paddles 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. Because these paddles sometimes had sheepskin striking surfaces, the ball noises off the racquets sounded like “ping” and “pong”, with each sound being emanated as a result of the tightness of the sheepskin of the racquet.

It wasn’t until the year 1900 that another prominent person called E.C. Goode invented a paddle that is more recognizable in the modern game. He was the first to use a sheet of rubber on top of the wooden blade, but it was not for at least 50 years that pieces of sponge were used between the blade and the rubber. This led to the types of paddles we see modern players using in most professional contests these days.

Modern table tennis paddles have an inverted rubber design, which is a top sheet made of vulcanized rubber that is bonded to an inner layer of expanded rubber sponge. The rubber is stuck to optimized wood or wood-composite blades. The playing characteristics of these modern table tennis paddles are completely different than the originals. Modern paddles can produce shots with ball speeds up to 100 miles per hour and ball spins of up to 9000 revolutions a minute.

Early Table Tennis Tables 

At first, table tennis was played on dining room tables or billiard tables. Players would simply set up nets across the table and sometimes even nets at the sides to catch the ball. Some members of the British army in India used to make their own tables using a row of books for the net, more books for paddles, and a golf ball to play with.

Early Table Tennis Balls 

In addition to golf balls, there were various other types of balls of different sizes and made using different materials. Before 1900 the balls were often made out of cork or rubber but these balls were not ideal as the bounce of the rubber ball was too unpredictable and that of the cork ball, not enough.

Then in 1901, the Englishman James Gibb discovered celluloid balls. A 38-millimeter ball made from celluloid quickly became the standard and was used all the way up until very recently when in 2000 the ball size was increased to 40 millimeters, partly to slow down the pace of pay for televised events. Then in 2014, ping pong balls started to be composed of plastic instead.

1920s until 1950s: Europe Wins with Hard Paddles 

old hard ping pong paddle

Although table tennis fell somewhat out of style in about 1903, it had a real revival in the 1920s. Standardized rules were introduced and adopted which helped the game to grow more and more popular. Then, in 1926 the ITTF (International Federation of Table Tennis) was formed in Berlin, Germany, and then the first-ever world championships were held in England. 

The time period between 1920 and 1950 is known as the Hard Paddle era because of the lack of sponges on the paddles at the time. European players were mostly the favorites in terms of competition wins over these thirty years. In 1936, a few rule changes were brought in by the ITTF, like increasing the height of the nets slightly and painting the tables a little differently.

This slowed the game down a lot, which made it harder for attacking players. During the World Championships in Prague in former Czechoslovakia in 1936, there was a rally that lasted over two hours, which remains the longest ever rally during a world championship game.


1950s until 1970s: The East Rules with Sponge Paddles 

Two table tennis or ping pong rackets and balls on a blue table

It was the invention of sponge paddles that brought the speed and spin we see in ping pong games today.

The 1950s saw a big change in the style of table tennis paddles. Japanese player Hiroji Satoh had a paddle with a layer of foam sponge rubber, which gave him a lot more speed and spin, and he was able to win the 1952 world championships with the new type of paddle. Also during this era, the sport had become very popular in many Asian countries, and players from China, Japan, and South Korea began to dominate all of the world championships.

1970s until 2000s: Ping Pong Diplomacy 

Table tennis served as a kind of political exercise during the 1970s when a friendly exchange between American and Chinese players led to a collaboration between the two countries. Even more momentous was Richard Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic in February 1972, which was the first time in history that an American president had traveled to the Chinese mainland.

This event gradually became known as Ping Pong Diplomacy, and it helped open the doors between the two countries during the Cold War when the embargo on China was lifted and the country was no longer shrouded by quite as much Cold War propaganda and diplomatic silence.

Writing about his visit to China many years later, Nixon reportedly said that the Chinese leaders “took particular delight in reminding me that an exchange of ping-pong teams had initiated a breakthrough in our relations. They seemed to enjoy the method used to achieve the result almost as much as the result itself.” Perhaps the most fitting table tennis metaphor came directly from Chairman Mao himself: “The little ball,” he said, “moves the big ball.”

Speed Glue and Sweden’s Ascendency

Another major development in the game during the 1970s was some experimentation with bicycle tire repair glue to apply the rubber to the paddles. This method became known as speed glue and it is generally credited to Yugoslavian Dragutin Surbek and Tibor Klampar of Hungary. Speed glue was fixed to the rubber surfaces of the paddle about 30 minutes before each match started. The use of speed glue increased the elasticity of the paddle and added speed and spin to the ball.

These experiments gradually led to a change in team domination. Many coaches and world-class players attribute the dominance of the European players in the World Championships from 1989 to 1993, when Sweden won three World Team Titles, to the speed glue effect. The Swedish success when using speed glue was so pronounced that many of the modern Chinese players also began to do it.

Even today, many players throughout the world still use speed glues based on ITTF-banned solvents in more minor tournaments because the performance of the current ITTF-approved speed glues is inferior. In America, for example, most table tennis dealers sell speed glues with illegal solvents such as trichloroethylene, which is very difficult to get in Europe.

Also, many amateur players use glues and solvents designed for other markets. For example, cold vulcanizing fluids for automotive tire repair and cigarette lighter fluids are two of the most common products used by players who are trying to gain an advantage.


Table Tennis Becoming an Olympic Sport

Table tennis at the olympics.

China has been the most successful nation in Olympic table tennis.

Table tennis has been part of the Olympic Games since 1988, with singles and doubles events for men and women athletes. Teams from China have mostly dominated the sport, winning a total of 53 medals in 32 events, including 28 out of a possible 32 gold medals, and only failing to at least medal in one event, the very first Men’s Singles event at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

That event was won by a South Korean called Yoo Nam Kyu, in an incredibly proud moment in that country’s sporting history. In the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, two bronze medals were awarded in each event. Because of China’s dominance in the sport as a whole, the format was changed for the 2012 Olympics, which specified that only two competitors from each country can enter (instead of three). 

This rule was made to ensure that one country cannot win all three top medals because that was what happened during both the Individual Men’s and Women’s events at the Beijing Olympic tournament in 2008, where China dominated and won all six of the medals. That year, the doubles events were also replaced by team events to reduce the relative weight of doubles games.

Some of the Other Prominent Professional Tournaments

In the year 2017, there were twelve high-quality events that made up the ITTF World Tour with six regular events and six platinum events. For the regular events, the minimum prize money on offer was $70,000, while that of the platinum event was at least $120,000.

There are also dozens of lucrative professional table tennis endorsements available from major sponsors, and some of the best professional players can earn as much as $40,000 or even more per year as individual players, if you factor in the deals and endorsements they can get from their sponsors.

A good example is Jan-Ove Waldner, a former Swedish table tennis player. He is often referred to as “the Mozart of table tennis,” and is often regarded as one of the greatest table tennis players of all time. International table tennis matches can offer just much intrigue as singles and doubles matches at world cup championships or at the Olympics. Taking a little bit of time to completely understand the rules will help you better appreciate the games you might see on television or online.

Some Modern Popular Styles of Table Tennis and Ping Pong

There continue to be a variety of styles of the game all across the world such as team events, doubles games, and special exhibition events. There are all kinds of professional ping pong leagues for both men and women of all ages. We have found that international rules are used for most of the major events, and table tennis players all over the world follow those same rules. 

Table tennis players must be able to start and stop quickly and travel from left to right with great agility. Players need a fair amount of power to hit certain shots like loops because the swing for those shots is full and very fast. Some of the best players have superior hand-eye coordination and a natural quickness that can only be fully appreciated in person because TV does not always capture the intense interchange between players that can often dominate much of the game.

Table tennis is a serious sport in some countries, even though it is often misunderstood and under-appreciated in the USA. To try and promote the sport, the USTTA did make a few changes to the game to try and make it more “watchable” on TV. One thing they did was to try and slow down the pace of the game. This took the game from 21 points to 11

The second thing they did was to make the ball larger, which made it harder to hit as powerfully, and this led to slower exchanges. In both cases, most of the players adapted quite well but the game is still not exactly prime time viewing. The game continues to be of great interest in Asia and all around the world, even in countries as unlikely as Wales, as more and more people enjoy the highest levels of play and the general population learns more about the rules of the game.

There are some tournaments that have become quite popular with people of all ages and nationalities. For example, there is the World Championship of Ping Pong (WCPP) that takes place every year in London, England. The tournament uses old-fashioned wooden paddles covered with sandpaper, which are supposed to encourage slower ball movement and longer rallies for better visual appeal on television screens.

There is also the biennial World Table Tennis Championship organized by the ITTF. As in the Olympic Games, China is the dominant power in this tournament, except for when Sweden won the championship four times between 1989 and 2000. Recently, China has continued to dominate the sport and the Chinese men’s team holds a record number of 20 world team championship titles.

Riley Draper

Avid table tennis player, world traveler, and content creator. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn.