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By Scott Anthony on

The ball: A centuries-long obsession

With just seconds remaining in the last 16 match between England and Slovakia at the European Championships, Jude Bellingham arched the ball back over his head and into the goal.

In the UK alone, 18.4 million people tuned in to watch a game that turned on the bounce of a ball and Bellingham’s stunning strike. But, as detailed in A Brief History of Stuff, this is a very modern obsession with much longer roots.

The anthropologist Robert W. Henderson argued that ‘the ball’ has been used since prehistoric times as both a fertility symbol and a way of staging mock combat between good and evil.

Rubber ball from Peruvian grave, c.1600

This Peruvian rubber ball from our collections is thought to date from the 16th century and was used in games that saw two teams kick, volley, head or strike the ball across a central dividing line at high speed.

It was a game also tied to systems of time. The Aztec version of the game was scheduled according to the observable cycles of the planet Venus, while elsewhere the game was a focus for betting, a substitute for war or a prelude to ritual slaughter.

For centuries ball games have been played under a pressure that appears out of all relation to their importance. The Mayan demigods, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, supposedly rescued the corpses of their forefathers by defeating the gods of the underworld in a game that was something like a mixture of volleyball and football.

The incredible symbolic weight that is placed on ball games continues in the present day where, following advances in the reality warping field of contemporary physics, philosophers have even developed new explanations for why we venerate the ball that are every bit as complex and ornate as those developed many centuries ago.

Modern thinkers have taken the ball to be a significant emblem of the ‘quasi-object’ – that is to say, an object that is not quite an object because it oscillates between objectivity and subjectivity. The ball is an ‘it’, but also an ‘I’ when sitting at the foot of a specific player, and a ‘we’ when woven by a team into a series of passes.  The ball makes it difficult if not impossible to separate the ‘it’, the ‘I’ and the ‘we’, because these categories are always emerging out of each other. ‘Do I not like that,’ as an England manager once famously quipped.

In the case of South and Central American societies, rubber balls like this one were not only part of intricate belief systems, but they were also supported by a particular material culture. We think of vulcanised rubber as an invention of the Victorian era, but centuries before in Central America, latex from rubber trees was mixed with sulphur from the roots of the morning glory plant to achieve an organically hardened equivalent.

The resilience and regularity of rubber balls allowed for the emergence of games of great skill. The current popularity in South America of games such as futsal, which borrows conventions from basketball, handball, and water polo as well as football, attests to the resilience of these cultural practices.

In contrast with South America, early ‘football’ in the UK was played between villages with an inflated pig’s bladder. Not only did these ‘balls’ bounce unevenly but they tended to collapse, often bringing games to a contentious and arbitrary end.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that the conventions of modern football were developed in England in the decade after Charles Goodyear patented vulcanised rubber in 1836. The development of the first rubber footballs in the mid-19th century not only made the bounce of the ball more predictable: it also enabled the creation of a set of standards for shape and size. Although the rubber cores of FIFA-approved balls are now laboratory tested to maximise the transfer of energy from the kicker to the ball, the measurements that define an official football have barely altered since 1872.

A photograph from the Daily Herald Archive of players for Plymouth Argyle in 1932 © Mirrorpix/Science Museum Group Images

It is only thanks to even more recent improvements in production processes and the development of synthetic materials, that we have recently been able to able to produce smooth, water-resistant balls that can be inflated to the right pressure to enable consistent bounce, balance, shape, trajectory, and velocity.

Understand this and it becomes easier to understand how this magically elastic, jumping ball from the 16th century, which looks like a stone, could become the object of such wonder and frustration.

Centuries later, and millions remain captivated by the behaviour of ‘the ball’ as the Copa America and the European Championships light up the summer.

This piece is an extract from the Science Museum’s new book, A Brief History of Stuff, published by DK Books.