Soccer balls of the present day are vastly improved, especially when the modern objects are compared side-by-side against the ones that existed prior to the twentieth century.
I thought it would be good to briefly talk about how soccer balls evolved into their current form, and the best reference point for doing this is by going over their initial invention.
So, who invented the first soccer ball?
In the year 1855, a man called Charles Goodyear created the first soccer ball that was made of a vulcanized rubber material. The panels of this ball – glued together at the seams – looked eerily similar to that of a modern basketball.
I’ll now talk a bit about Charles and how he played a big part in making the sport what it is today.
Buckle up because it’s story time!
Who was Charles Goodyear?
Mr. Charles Goodyear was born on the 29th of December in the year 1800 and he went to live on for 59 years, as he died on the 1st of July in the year 1860.
The man – of American nationality – was a self-taught chemist and manufacturing engineer by trade.
He was responsible for patenting the vulcanization process that made the commercialisation of rubber material a reality.
Although, its important to note that this revolutionary accomplishment was not achieved without sacrifice.
Charles Goodyear devoted large parts of his entire life, along with his own health and his family’s own wealth to make rubber what it is today.
How did Charles Goodyear invent the first soccer ball?
The first soccer ball was made through what is known as vulcanization.
Now for those of you reading this who aren’t too sure what vulcanization is, I’ll offer a brief explanation.
Vulcanization is a chemical process involving the application of sulphur to alter the molecular structure of rubber in a way that significantly improves the material’s elasticity, tensile strength and resilience, as well as helping it retain its shape through extreme temperatures of heat and cold.
You see back in the day; rubber had a fatal flaw.
Being impervious to water and easy to stretch made it suitable for many industrial uses at the time, but the fact that the substance melted in the summer and cracked in the winter held its commercial potential back significantly.
Which is why so many different goods are beneficiaries of the rubber vulcanization process that eliminated the aforementioned drawback.
Some of these products include:
- Automotive tyres
- Life jackets
- Pencil erasers
- Soccer balls
It took many years of mistakes to arrive at the very first soccer ball, so I’ll now document some of the trials and tribulations that Charles Goodyear underwent to get there.
It was 1823 when Charles stepped out of the comfort zone that was his home to learn about the hardware business.
For the next two years he grafted as a factory man and when he got to the age of twenty-five, sought greener pastures.
Charles then became a partner within his father’s own hardware business that was based in Connecticut, where they manufactured metal and ivory buttons in addition to a plethora of different agricultural supplements.
But after the business went bankrupt in 1830, he ignited his career in rubber products.
Charles spent the next couple of years of his life devoted to making rubber suitable for industrial use.
His exploits are said to have got interesting in 1834 when he tried to make India rubber retain its solidity when exposed to the temperature extremes of heat and cold.
After this experiment failed, he then went to work with a man called Nathaniel Hayward – who was a former employee at a rubber factory.
Hayward had already discovered an interesting peculiarity about rubber, which was that it had no stickiness when treated with sulphur.
So, Charles went ahead and bought the intellectual rights to this idea from Mr. Hayward.
His obsession with the project grew and before long Charles had moved houses several times in order to find investors that could finance his experiments.
This plunged his family into massive debt and forced him to sell his family’s furnishings and even his children’s textbooks in order to balance things out.
And just when he thought he had stumbled upon a winner with a nitric acid treatment – winning a lucrative contract to supply the U.S. Post Office in Boston with rubber mail bags – a major snag arose as he discovered that the smoothened rubber made from this method couldn’t withstand hot weather.
All the work he put in with the nitric acid dipping also came at the expense of his physical health.
The exposure to these harsh chemicals almost led to him dying through suffocation from gas generated within his own laboratory, and the subsequent fever almost took his life too.
“The great accident”
But Charles’ fortunes turned around dramatically after he accidentally combined rubber with sulphur on a hot stove and saw that the material didn’t melt and it actually hardened when the temperature was raised.
This was the birth of rubber vulcanization, although the process still needed to be refined.
I’ve added an informative video below so you can learn exactly how this material came to be:
Process perfection and patent approval
After a few more years of fine-tuning and enhancing the chemical formula that involved mixing sulphur and rubber at extreme temperatures, Charles Goodyear patented the vulcanization process in 1844.
This was done after he founded the Naugatuck India-Rubber Company in Connecticut a year earlier.
But even after having the patent granted, it wasn’t until the year 1852 where the decisive victory came as he had to navigate numerous court infringements that challenged for the exclusive ownership rights to the process.
Finally, the first soccer ball that wasn’t made from stuffed pig bladder came out in 1855, as Charles Goodyear released the initial spherical shape design that we’ve come to know and love.
What was the original soccer ball made out of?
Before the discovery of vulcanized rubber, things were quite different.
It’s said that in ancient China people used to make balls from animal skins that would be used in a game called “tsu chu”.
What’s even more fascinating is that historians claim that games of skull-kicking used to take place back in the day, with soldiers of the Greek, Roman and Egyptian empires often engaged in playing with the heads of their fallen enemies.
However, the first ever soccer ball of standard shape was made out of a pig or sheep’s bladder.
They were wrapped into leather casing and knotted together at each end.
But unfortunately, the shape of these soccer balls resembled rugby ones and they weren’t spherical enough.
I talk about this topic in much greater detail within my dedicated article on what old soccer balls used to be made of, as well as in my post on the world’s oldest soccer ball.
This article has certainly been a rollercoaster of a ride!
It’s covered who invented the first soccer ball as well as documented how that process took shape over the years.
I hope you’ve been able to learn something about older soccer balls and that this post has encouraged or influenced you to have more appreciation for the work that goes into making the best soccer balls that exist today.