History of Table Tennis: How the Wonderful Sport Came to Be

Ping pong didn’t get the smooth start you might expect. It was a bumpy road. In fact, for a time, it looked like the sport would die out altogether. Fortunately, this didn’t happen, and it propelled itself to being one of the most popular sports in the world.

Originating in Victorian England, the game began as an indoor version of the ever-popular lawn tennis. Upper-class people made their own versions of the game using books and golf balls. Promptly, manufacturers began making and selling their models of the game, the first being released by Parlour Table Games in 1890.

However, ineffective equipment prevented the sport’s growth. Of course, in time, these hurdles would be overcome. But besides equipment, what other issues did the sport face? We tell all in this comprehensive history of table tennis post.

Origins of Table Tennis


history of table tennis
Parlour Table Games by David Foster – credit: ITTF

What Country Invented Ping Pong?

Which country invented ping pong? It was England! The game was introduced at the end of the 19th Century. Table tennis first emerged as a parlor game in England, though it was not entirely new.

The earliest invention of table tennis sought to emulate lawn tennis, a popular outdoor Victorian game. At the time, this sport was all the rage. So manufacturers sought to exploit this demand by creating an indoor version that people could enjoy when poor weather prevented outdoor play.

So Who Was the Ping Pong Inventor?

The earliest table tennis patent was made by James Devonshire in 1885. However, he abandoned the patent. So, in reality, David Foster is the true inventor. He filed his patent and produced Parlour Table Games in 1890. The game included strung rackets, a 30 mm cloth rubber ball, and a large net on the sides.

Clearly, the presence of large nets on both sides made the game very different from what it is today, and the rules were very basic too. The ball was out of bounds if it touched or went over the side nets, and players were told to follow standard tennis rules. God only knows what this meant for serving!

Tracing the Name

Just a year later, in 1891, Jaques of London released their version of the game called “GOSSIMA”. While this had no side netting like the Parlour Table Games version a year prior, it still differs a lot from the game we know and love today. The rackets used vellum drum skin, making them very loud and the handles were absurdly long.

As for the balls, they were 50 mm, and we believe they were made from cork as opposed to rubber. Neither was fitting as the rubber was too unpredictable and the cork didn’t bounce high enough.  As a result, both games were not very successful.

It was not until the introduction of the celluloid ball in 1900 that the game started gaining popularity. Jaques sought to change the name to make it more appealing, opting for “Gossima or Ping Pong”, a weird choice we know. However, it would eventually evolve to become solely “Ping Pong”.

How Did Ping Pong Get Its Name?

The name Ping Pong traces back to a song by Steve Grant song in 1884. He used the words to describe the sound the first drum rackets created. Interestingly, he was not alone in seeking to represent this sound. Numerous table tennis games appeared with similar names such as Whiff Waff, Pom-Pom, Pim-Pam, and Clip-Clap.

In 1901, the Parker Brothers acquired the trademark of Ping Pong. It led to the widespread distribution of the game across Europe in the early twentieth century. All this time, the game still held the status of a pastime activity rather than a sport.

Read More: What Is the Difference Between Ping Pong and Table Tennis?


Brief History of Table Tennis — Key Milestones

1880s The first occurrence of lawn tennis adapted for indoors
1885 “Table Tennis” patent by James Devonshire. Abandoned two years later
1890s Numerous patents emerged. Most reputable games included David Foster’s Parlour Table Games and GOSSIMA 
1900 Rubber and cork balls were replaced by celluloid
1901 Ping Pong Association and Table Tennis Association formed, merging two years later
1903 New paddles created featuring wooden blades with pimpled rubbers
1904 Popularity declines
1920s to 1950 Hard bat era
1922 Popularity rises with new rules put in place
1926 The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) formed in Berlin and the first World Championships took place in London
1937 Net lowered to 6 inches to make the game more exciting
1950s Sponge introduced into rubbers
1988 Table tennis makes it into the Olympics
1996 Start of the ITTF Pro Tour
2000 Ball size increased to 40 mm 
2001 Game score reduced from 21 to 11
2016 Celluloid balls make way for plastic

Early Table Tennis Ball and Paddle Changes

history of table tennis
Early celluloid ball – credit: American History

As time went on, table tennis underwent several refinements. The most notable of which was the introduction of the celluloid ball in 1900. Without it, table tennis may never have become the popular sport it is today. We have Englishman, James Gibb, to thank for the change. He discovered the first celluloid balls during his trip to the US in 1901. Afterward, he proved that these balls were perfect for playing the sport, and soon thereafter, they became the standard.  

Two years later in 1903, paddles also saw a big change. Where previously, players used parchment paper and cigar box lids, among other objects, they were ditched in favor of wooden blades with pimpled rubber. However, the true hard bat era would not emerge until much later in the 1920s.

Governance and Competitions

The earliest governing bodies of table tennis are the Table Tennis Association and Ping Pong Association, both formed in 1901. While originally they were at odds, they merged in 1903. The International Table Tennis Federation would not come about until much later in 1926.

That being said, the first table tennis competitions took place before any of these organizations came about, so the rules may have been ambiguous. The first known competition was the National Championships which was held in Hungary in 1987. Later in 1901, the first UK-based tournament took place. This was held at the London Royal Aquarium. The event lasted four days, and over 250 competitors entered.

In the same year, the ITTF formed, the first official World Championships took place in London. The first champion was a Hungarian player by the name of Dr. Jacobi. This made sense as Hungary was ahead of the curve in hosting competitive table tennis events, so they likely had better players than other nations. 

It would take many more decades for the sport to enter the Olympics. It was first recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1977, introduced into the program in 1981, and then finally appeared in 1988 at the Seoul Olympic Games.

Read More: Best Table Tennis Balls


Introduction of Sponge Rubbers


history of table tennis
Hiroji Satoh’s thick sponge paddle – credit: Mytabletennis.net

Following a period known as the hard bat era which lasted from the 1920s to 1950, the dynamics of table tennis experienced a monumental change when players began using sponge rubbers. These rubbers first appeared in the 50s and replaced the thin non-versatile pimple rubbers that were the norm.

Those who were quick to adopt these new rubbers had a massive advantage over the users of the old equipment. The much thicker sponge rubbers were capable of high levels of spin that just weren’t possible with thin pimpled rubber. As a result, the ITTF stepped in before the situation spiraled out of control. They introduced restrictions, preventing sponge bats from being too thick. That being said, the game still evolved massively and become a much faster sport.

Read More: Table Tennis Rules


Further Ball Changes

The switch from rubber and cork to celluloid may have been highly successful, but to the ITTF, it wasn’t perfect. After 100 years of leaving the balls as they were, they made their first change, and it was a small one. They enlarged the ball from 38 mm to 40 mm, the intent was to improve the game from a spectator’s standpoint.

However, a much more recent change occurred in 2016. The ITTF boldly decided to switch from celluloid material which had helped put table tennis on the map. This was following health and safety concerns, and only a limited number of factories still operational. The change had many issues. The first plastic balls were not perfectly spherical and too prone to cracking. Nevertheless, quality control improved over time, and everyone adjusted to the new material.

Closing Thoughts on the History of Ping Pong

The true origin of table tennis is hotly debated. While most credit David Foster for creating Parlour Table Games in 1890, he was not the first to create indoor lawn tennis games. Both James Devonshire and Ralph Slazenger registered patents for such games, although neither materialized into sellable products. Therefore, we think it’s fair to give David Foster credit.

Initially, table tennis piggybacked off of the lawn tennis craze, and while this worked for a time, the ineffective equipment saw most ping pong games in the early days die a quick death. It wasn’t until celluloid replaced poor rubber and cork balls in 1900 before the popularity of table tennis started to pick up steam once more.

The first modern table tennis paddles wouldn’t come about until three years later in 1903. Yet these were very basic blades with pimpled rubbers. The popular sandwich sponge rubber that we use today didn’t appear until much later in 1950.

And that about sums up the main history of table tennis. if you’d like to learn more about ping pong history, such as the dominance of Chinese players, check out Ping Pong Ruler’s write-up.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who Is the Father of Table Tennis?

Ivor Montagu is the father of table tennis. He was an excellent table tennis player and founded the International Table Tennis Federation. He served as president for over forty years and retired in 1967. Montagu played a pivotal role in running the first World Championships held in London in 1926.

What Is the First Name of Table Tennis?

The first name of table tennis was lawn tennis. Many indoor lawn tennis games were produced to take advantage of the popularity of outdoor lawn tennis. The very first was Parlour Table Games in 1890.

What Did Table Tennis Used to Be Called?

Table tennis has gone by many names such as “Lawn Tennis”, and while one of the oldest patents was actually for “table tennis” (1985), it was later abandoned. Since that time, table tennis games have gone by the name Ping Pong and many others:

  • Gossima
  • Whiff Waff
  • Parlour Tennis
  • Pom-Pom
  • Pim-Pam
  • Netto
  • Clip-Clap

Who Introduced Table Tennis in the USA?

Table tennis was first officially introduced to the USA by Emma Baker. She filed for an American patent in 1891 following Jaques of London’s UK patent in the same year. Her version improves upon previous lawn tennis games with a more secure net and new rackets.

How Old Is Ping Pong?

The age of ping pong depends on your perception. The Hamley Brothers trademarked the name in 1900, however, David Foster released the earliest version of the game 10 years prior in 1890.

When Was Table Tennis Invented?

Table Parlour Games was the first game to release that emulates table tennis. It was released in 1891.

Where was Ping Pong Invented?

David Foster made the earliest ping pong game. Named Parlour Table Games, he patented it in England. The game included cricket and football as well as lawn tennis, which is what table tennis was commonly modeled after.

Read More: Most Famous Table Tennis Players of All Time

Alex Horscroft

Freelance writer. Table tennis enthusiast. Lover of all things online. When I’m not working on my loop game I’m probably binge-watching some fantasy show.

1 thought on “History of Table Tennis: How the Wonderful Sport Came to Be”

  1. I really love table tennis – it is such a great sport. And I am not saying it because of my previous experience, but I really do mean it! I really do. But during this week I found myself knowing very little about table tennis history, I didn’t know how it all started, where and when.

    So I thought, wouldn’t it be very interesting to do some research and get to know the most important facts at least? So I did it and and I am telling You, it is really intriguing and fascinating. I mean, the way they named it in the very beginning, the way they played it – wow, it is crazy.

    And then, I didn’t know that there were some people who didn’t want it as an Olympic Sport! Yeah, how can it be? If they could see how popular it is right now world wide…

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