Like many other sports, Table Tennis began as a mild social diversion. It was probably played with improvised equipment in England, during the last quarter of the 19th century. Though Table Tennis evolved, along with Badminton and Lawn Tennis, from the ancient game of Tennis (also known as Jeu de Paume, Real tennis, Court Tennis or Royal Tennis), the game was developed after Lawn Tennis became popular in the 1880s.
Ancient woodcut showing jeu de paume game, published in 1576. ITTF Museum
The earliest surviving action game of Tennis on a table is a set made by David Foster, patented in England in 1890 (No.11037): Parlour Table Games, which included table versions of Lawn Tennis, Cricket and Football. The Lawn Tennis game featured strung rackets, a 30mm cloth covered rubber ball, a wooden fence set up around the perimeter of the table, and large side nets extending along both sides.
Lithograph segment, earliest known action game of tennis on a table: David Foster (ENG) 1890. One of 2 known examples.
Foster’s rules, found at Cambridge University by Steve Grant (USA). The rules are very brief (unlike those for the companion games of table cricket and football). Note rule 3, which mentions ‘Table Tennis’. Steve also discovered that Foster patented his game compendium in Canada.
Game manufacturers tried many experiments to market an indoor version of Lawn Tennis, including board and dice games, Tiddledy Winks variations, card games, racket and balloon games and others.
Lawn Tennis board game by Singer (USA), another indication that the sport was very popular in the 1880s ITTF Museum.
Renowned researcher Alan Duke (ENG) recently discovered an English patent by Ralph Slazenger, No. 3156, dated 26 June 1883 (and likely months developing the idea before filing the Application), for improved nets for games. The patent describes net post mechanisms, with this important statement:
“This arrangement is adapted for ordinary lawn tennis, and for a modified game to be played indoors, say upon a billiard or dining table. In the latter case the poles are supported in brackets clamped to the table and the ends of the cord may be clamped by the cam arrangement, or fastenend under the table, or weighted.”
Duke correctly concludes that this “quite possibly is now the earliest known reference to a table version of tennis (and, importantly, accurately dated).” However, no evidence has been found that such a game was developed at that time.
Steve Grant (Ping Pong Fever, 2012, USA) found mention of one James Devonshire (ENG), who John Jaques claimed invented Table Tennis in a 1901 interview published in The Echo. Subsequently Alan Duke found in The Official Journal of the Patent Office that:
- Devonshire applied for a Patent on October 9, 1885 for his “Table Tennis”.
- The Nov. 24, 1885 issue of the Journal shows Provisional Specifications were accepted
- In January 1887 the Application is listed as Abandoned. Once again no evidence of Devonshire’s game, nor advertisement has been found; quite likely it was never put into production.One feasible scenario is that Jaques paid Devonshire for his idea, ultimately becoming the basis for Jaques’ Gossima, released in 1891. However, the lengthy time factor is a concern, as mentioned by renowned Jaques authority Michael Thomson (SCO).The 1887 catalog of George S. Parker (USA) includes an entry for “Table Tennis: This game is laid out like a Lawn Tennis court, played and counted just the same, all the rules being observed.” However, this was a board and dice game by J.H. Singer (NY), whose name also appears on the catalog.
Rare board & dice game, “Table Tennis” by J.H.Singer 1887. Earliest production use of the name Table Tennis. ITTF Museum
One year later famous game makers Jaques of London released their GOSSIMA game. This game borrowed the drum style battledores from the Shuttlecock game, and used a 50mm webbed wrapped cork ball, with an amazing 30cm high net that was secured by a belt-like strap under the table. Only 2 examples are known to have survived.
Jaques (ENG) GOSSIMA, 1891, with 50mm ball, 30cm high net, vellum drum rackets. The white belt was used to secure the large wood net fixtures to the table. ITTF Museum
Neither of these action games were successful, due to the ineffective ball: the rubber ball had too wild a bounce, while the cork ball had too poor a bounce. Jaques continued to advertise Gossima throughout the 1890s, but it was not until c.1900, when the celluloid ball was introduced to the game, that the concept of tennis on a table became successful. Steve Grant has traced the name Ping Pong to an 1884 song by Harry Dacre. The distinct sound of the celluloid ball bouncing off the drum rackets quickly led to the use of the same name. This can still be demonstrated today using the antique rackets! As the name Ping Pong caught on, Jaques changed the name of his game to “Gossima or Ping Pong” and soon afterward, to “Ping Pong or Gossima”. Ultimately the name Gossima was dropped.
The game quickly caught on with the public, marketed under many different names:
- Ping Pong or Gossima
- Ping Pong
- Table Tennis
- Whiff Waff
- Parlour Tennis
- Indoor Tennis
- Royal Game
- Tennis de Salon
Gradually the two most popular names prevailed: Ping Pong, and Table Tennis. However, these competing names caused some problems, as two associations were formed, and with different rules for the game some confusion resulted. Ping Pong was trademarked in 1900 by Hamley Brothers in England, and soon afterwards Hamleys became “jointly concerned” with Jaques. They rigorously enforced the Ping Pong trademark, requiring use of their Ping Pong equipment in Ping Pong tournaments and clubs. Parker Brothers, who acquired the American rights to the name Ping Pong, similarly enforced the trademark. Eventually it became clear that for the sport to move forward, the commercial ties had to be severed.
Timeline of Table Tennis Milestones
with thanks to the late Ron Crayden (ENG)
and his book, The Story of Table Tennis – the first 100 years
with updates by the ITTF Museum
|Adaptation of lawn tennis to the dining table with improvised equipment
|Slazenger patent, nets for games, mentions tennis on a table
|James Devonshire (ENG) granted provisional patent for his “Table Tennis”, abandoned 1887.1
| Several patents registered in England and the USA
Earliest surviving action game of table tennis: David Foster’s Parlour Table Games, England 1890
Sets produced under trade names such as Gossima, and Indoor Tennis, with Lawn Tennis style rules
|Introduction of celluloid balls to replace rubber and cork ones. The celluloid ball had the perfect bounce, and the game became a huge success
|Table Tennis Association and rival Ping Pong Association formed in England; amalgamated in 1903
First books on the game published in England
The game is introduced in China via western settlements & trade missions
|Ping Pong craze fades, some pockets of popularity in eastern Europe continue
|Revival of the game in England & Europe, though laws varied.
Establishment of standard laws of the game in England
|International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) initiated in Berlin
First World Championships held in London, England. ITTF Constitution adopted, along with first set of standardized Laws.
Ivor Montagu (ENG) elected Chairman
|Classic Hard Bat Era (European Dominance)
|Maria Mednyanszky (HUN) wins the World Championships five times consecutively. Mednyanszky wins 18 gold medals over-all
|Victor Barna (HUN) becomes five times world champion. Barna wins a record 22 gold medals at world championships during his career, 40 medals overall
|Tenth World Championships held in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The longest rally took place, the first point taking over two hours due to pushing style play.
|A lowering of the net to 6 inches (15.24cm) encouraged more attacking style, and time limits imposed on matches.
Both women singles finalists defaulted at the World Championships due to misunderstanding about time limit law. Ruth Aarons (USA) & Trude Pritzi (AUT) declared co-champions in 2001.
|First World Championship held outside Europe: Cairo, Egypt
|Due to World War II the ITTF suspended activities, & no World Championships were held
|First Continental Federation founded December 12: South American Confederation.
|ITTF resumes activity; World Championships held in Paris, but Richard Bergmann (ENG), defending World Singles Champion, not allowed to participate by Montagu due to Bergmann accepting money for exhibition play during War years without official permission.
|Angelica Rozeanu-Adelstein (ROU) wins the World Championships six times in a row and is the last non Asian to win the female singles title until today. 1950: Bergmann wins 4th World Singles title
|Age of Sponge Bat and Technology (Beginning of Asian Dominance)
|Nineteenth World Championships held in Bombay, India the first to be staged in Asia. Japan’s entry to the international scene
Hiroji Satoh (JPN) became the first player to win a World Championship when using a racket covered with thick sponge and is the first non-European winner.
Inauguration of the Asian Federation & First Asian Federation Championships
|China entered the World Championships for the first time. Thick sponge bat causes major controversies for the next several years.
|Ichiro Ogimura (JPN) is the epitome of Japanese dominance with technological development and physical training
|Tomie Okada-Okawa (JPN) is the first female player from Asia to win the World Championships and stops the European reign on world’s female table tennis.
|World Championship changes to a two-year cycle
|First European Championships, Budapest, Hungary. The USSR made their entry to the international scene
|Rong Guotuan (CHN) is the first Chinese world champion in any sport.
Racket standardization laws enacted
|1st Paralympic Games in Rome, included Table Tennis
|First All-Africa Championships, Alexandria, Egypt
|Ivor Montagu retired as President of the ITTF after forty years in office. Swaythling Club International founded, Victor Barna President.
|First Commonwealth Championships held in Singapore
Ping Pong Diplomacy: table tennis played an important role in international diplomacy when several teams were invited to China for a series of friendship matches after the 1971 World Championships. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai: “Your visit to China has opened the door for people-to-people exchanges between China and the USA.”
|Stellan Bengtsson (SWE) wins the men’s singles title and heralds the start of three decades of Swedish influence, with top players such as Kjell Johansson, Mikael Appelgren, Erik Lindh, Jan-Ove Waldner, Jörgen Persson, and Peter Karlsson.
|First World University Championships held in Hanover, Germany
|ITTF received formal declaration of its recognition by the International Olympic Committee (IOC)
|First European Championships for Paraplegics (wheelchair players) held in Stoke Mandeville, England
|First World Cup held in Hong Kong
|World Championships held in Nova Sad, Yugoslavia. Total triumph for China, whose athletes win all of the seven gold medals
Table tennis admitted to the Olympic programme (84th session IOC)
|First World Veterans’ Championships held in Gothenburg, Sweden.
First World Championships for the disabled held in Stoke Mandeville, England
|European Youth Championships held in The Hague, Holland
|Modern Olympics Era (Chinese Reign with few exceptions)
|For the very first time, table tennis was featured in the Olympic Games, held in Seoul, South Korea
|A United North & South Korea team won the Corbillon Cup at the World Championships in Chiba, Japan
|Former World champion, Jan-Ove Waldner (SWE) became Olympic singles champion and reputedly, the first table tennis millionaire
|World Championships held in Tianjin, China. Total triumph for China for the second time, winning seven gold medals
|Beginning of the ITTF Pro Tour, with events taking place worldwide
|After the Olympics in Sydney, the ball size is increased to 40mm for improved television viewing
|Game score changed from 21 to 11 points World Championships held in Osaka, Japan. Total triumph for China for the third time, winning all of the seven gold medals
|Implementation of the ITTF World Junior Circuit (U18) and World Cadet Challenge (U15 continental team competition)
|First ITTF World Junior Championships in Santiago, Chile
Team Championships separated from individual events, held in alternate years
|During the Olympic Games in Athens, Table Tennis ranked 5th among all sports for television viewing audience
|World Championships held in Shanghai, China. Total triumph again for China, winning all of the five gold medals.
|World Championships held in Bremen, Germany. The Chinese athletes complete the collection with two gold medals in the team events
|World Championships held in Zagreb, Croatia. Total triumph number five for China, winning all of the five gold medals
First appearance of table tennis as a compulsory sport at the Universiade in Bangkok, Thailand
|China sweeps the Team championships in Guangzhou
China wins all the Gold at the Beijing Olympic Games
|Table Tennis is part of the first Youth Olympic Games
|China wins World Team Golds and all the Gold medals at the London Olympic Games, and 24 of a possible 28 Golds in 7 Olympic Games.
Persson (SWE), Primorac (CRO) and J-M Saive (BEL) participated in all 7 Olympic Games.
|Plastic balls used at World Championships & Olympics
The Chinese again win all 4 Olympic Gold medals, and overall 28 of 32 Olympic Golds since 1988