The Evolutionary History of Ping Pong – Part I (Editor’s note: This is not a fluff piece; this is a piece of fluff)
Prologue: In the beginning it was called just “ping,” but for our purposes in this historical account, I will be referring to it as “ping pong” just to make sure some of our readers don’t confuse it for the sound your car makes when it’s out of tune or when you use cheap gas.
In preparing this document, I have amassed a large data base and then condensed it to form a concise but accurate history of ping pong. I have purposely omitted several contemporary theories relating to the origin and invention of the sport (e.g., that the English invented it and that the Parker Brothers bought the rights to it), since these accounts appear to be utterly fanciful and absurd. Some historians would actually have you believe that ping pong was invented by the British at or near the beginning of the 20th century. That’s total and complete hogwash or, as an Englishman might rightly say himself, Balderdash! While it is true that ping pong was recognized as an Olympic Games sport fairly recently, being featured for the first time in the 1988 games in Seoul, it may come as a surprise or a shock to the brainwashed public that our hominid predecessors played the game a long, long time ago, and that other prehistoric creatures may have also been involved in the sport (as a means of attacking prey).
The reader should be assured that the contents which follow herein are the real and true facts – the whole truth, nothing but the truth – and that the information has been rigorously and painstakingly verified by several sources.
Part I: Across eons of time, evolution has crafted changes in the planet, including its geology and its life forms. In the beginning there were only single-celled micro-organisms but, later, through the passage of long spans of earth’s geological history, methane and ammonia finally emerged from the primordial soup, soon to be followed by long pips, speed glue and the Killerspin Jet 800 Speed N1 ping pong paddle with its two carbon fiber plies.
The Phanerozoic Eon is where we will start. It represents geologic time from the end of the Precambrian, approximately 550 to 570 million years ago – give or take a few million – until July 29, 2019. It is divided into Eras, which are smaller time frames. These consist of the major stages in the macroscopic ping pong fossil record. They are, in chronological order: The Paleozoic, The Mesozoic, The Cenozoic and The Spongezoic – meaning “old life”, “middle life” “recent life” and No Life.
At its inception, the game was played on nearly flat rocks – usually limestone, this type being of the sedimentary class and offering a fairly flat surface. The rules at the time allowed for a do-over if a ball hit an imperfection on the court/table surface (which was usually every other shot). Limestone consists of calcium carbonate written with this formula: CaCO3. (This has nothing to do with ping pong history, but since I know this, I thought it would be good for everyone to expand their horizons. My mother taught me this when she told me there was more to life than just stickball.)
Paleontologists have found traces of primitive rackets in southern Utah alongside several dinosaur species (who presumably used them). So, there were definitely land predators utilizing these early rackets. Of course, these were simple and crude, being constructed without the benefit of Butterfly Tenergy 05, so it can be assumed that Brontosauruses were not attacking with tremendous topspin back in the Jurassic. Patagonia, at the southern tip of Chile, is another location where one can still find rich fossil evidence of these ‘instruments’ (there are some academic researchers who obstinately refuse to use the word “rackets”) because several specimens of these early relics have been found there preserved underwater.
200 million years ago there was a mass extinction, and it was erroneously believed that sandpaper rackets vanished. These so-called early ancestral prototypes of the sandpaper racket discovered from the latter days of the Triassic, were probably made of abrasive vellum (an animal skin, but which played like an 80 grit aluminum oxide), and had not in fact died out. Proof of this relates to their direct descendants, the hardbats, which could not have flourished afterward without undergoing development through the sandpaper line. There is no question, however that the early sandpaper versions were reduced to marginal numbers following this geologic upheaval and did not make a major comeback until the 1930’s and 40’s at Madison Square Garden.
Following the Triassic came the Jurassic, notable for the first trace of rubber, and then the Cretaceous, where sponge came into existence.
Thanks to the barren outcrops in Patagonia, Madagascar and Greenwich, Connecticut, we learn of the dominance of cork and plain wood in racket construction somewhat afterward. These non-rubber bats prospered during these periods for millions of years. But then it all changed. But what happened? Probably another mass extinction, this one occurring 66 million years ago, an event that saw the dinosaurs perish. An asteroid and then a volcano (just to makes sure) probably struck somewhere near Tompkins Avenue in Pleasantville, where remains of the crater can still be seen today at the rear of the 175 building (the depressed crater is now a parking lot). The impact of the asteroid brought an end to the use of goatskin and birchbark in early ping pong objects, with their distinctive handles and frames. Used by early hominids (like Lucy), the new rubber forms were not to be introduced for a couple of eons, but these non-rubber primeval bats were all headed for extinction, anyway. Only a few species made it through to survive in the post asteroid, ITTF world.
Early humans used both stone and bone paddles. The bone paddles were lighter and easier to use and were hence outlawed as it was seen as totally unfair to pair them against the heavier stone bats. Eventually the bottoms of broken clay pots became the main body of the (customary) paddle used by these human antecedents, and new rules were adopted describing the thickness of these clay utensils and the wooden handles secured to them. Stone and bone were not mentioned in these rules since, by then, almost nobody except the most stubborn Luddites were using them – so they were excluded from the official list of legal bats permitted in tournament play based on the fact that they were not mentioned at all by the ITTF Rules Committee. However, strong evidence suggests that several Cro-magnoms disputed the rules, as they persisted in still using antlers at the time. Nonetheless, and despite these ongoing hominid protests, as well as by those we now call Australopithecus, these groups were fighting a futile battle and eventually succumbed to the demands of the ITTF rules which insisted that they replace their antler-handled paddles with sharpened sticks made of acceptable wood varieties. Noteworthy is this finding, as well: Ferns and shrubs were outlawed, but the rationale for this particular audacious ruling has been lost to history.
Part II to follow; stay tuned. Lao Du