Hermann Stainer

Business Software Developer & Consultant, MBA, CEO of WebMini Inc.

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Iconic Patents: The Football

Will it be a running play or a passing play? This question did not arise in American Football for a long time, because the balls of the early days could basically not be passed.

About This Series Of Articles

Behind every patent there is a story—and in this series of articles I would like to introduce some of the most well-known. Inventions that caused a sensation and gained cult status. I will also address the inventors and applicants of these patents.

While modern American Football cosists of a variety of plays, it is mainly the long, spectacular forward passes that are associated with the sport. A mostly forgotten fact today is that this type of passing game was impractical over much of the early days of the sport. The reason for this was the most important element of the game: the football. The pioneers of the game had to struggle with numerous problems of their ball.

The story of the manufactured inflatable ball begins around 1849 with English leatherworker Richard Lindon, who happened to have his shop nearby the Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, known for being the birthplace of Rugby football. Lindon’s business soon shifted from producing footwear to supplying the pupils of the school with footballs. While the outside consisted of stitched leather, the inside was a pig’s bladder and inflated by mouth using a pipe, a very dangerous process since it was possible that the pig was diseased and oneself could get infected. Lindon therefore had the idea of using natural rubber instead (despite this and numerous other inventions, he never filed a patent application).

Due to the origin of the bladder, there originally was no other way but to play Rugby with a round-shaped ball. It was difficult to carry, and throwing was not only infeasible but also against the rules. However, the switch to rubber opened the possibility of using other shapes, and in 1874, a new ball was used that had a shape similar to a watermelon.

American Football started with such Rugby footballs, but in 1906, the forward pass was legalized and soon after that, new rules allowed the use of a ball that was essentially an oversize version of today’s modern football. But running plays were still the only viable strategy, since the ball was constantly deflating, losing its shape, and as a result was awkward to throw. While this was already a big challenge for manufacturers to overcome, it was also a very complicated and time-consuming process to inflate the ball. Football games sometimes were halted with players taking turns on blowing up the ball. Multiple patents were granted on various inventions to solve this issue, such as a syringe-like device. In addition, for each inflation, the ball had to be unlaced (and then laced up again), and each ball had metal stem valves that not only made it uneven and therefore difficult to throw, but were also dangerous for the players.

Evolution of the football: to the left an illustration from a 1925 patent, to the right from a 1939 patent.
Evolution of the football: to the left an illustration from a 1925 patent, to the right from a 1939 patent.

Patents show the evolution of the football: over the years, its shape was more and more enhanced for making pass plays possible. In his 1925 patent US 1,559,117, John E. Maynard writes: “This invention has for its object to provide a football especially adapted for use in playing the present open game wherein the ball is frequently thrown by hand in the play known as the ‘forward pass’. In the execution of this play, it is necessary that the ball be grasped by the end and quickly and accurately thrown, and in wet weather, when the ball is slippery, it is difficult to obtain a sufficiently grip thereon to accomplish this successfully.”

14 years later, in 1939, patent US 2,182,053 by Milton B. Reach shows the shape further advanced to the football as we know it today, amongst many other improvements. Not much later, in 1941, Samuel “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh of the Washington Redskins became the NFL’s first well-known passing quarterback. Nowadays, manufacturers continue to improve the football on aspects such as materials used, enhanced grip, and durability.

Next week, the Philadelphia Eagles will play the New England Patriots in the 52nd Super Bowl. While the winner has yet to be determined, one thing is certain: the fans are going to see spectacular passing plays that would not be possible without the great inventions along the development of the football. I wish all fans a great game!

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About the Author

Hi, I’m Hermann, I’m in the software business since 17 years—welcome to my website! Here I write mostly about both the software industry in general and my personal experiences with my company WebMini Inc.

My specialty is IP (=intellectual property) monitoring software, which is used by patent professionals such as law firms or companies that own patents.

If you have a question about one of my articles, something to share or just want to chat, please contact me!

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