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No. 3058:
Bounding Billies

by Andrew Boyd

Today, bounding billies. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

When Coburn Haskell filed his patent in 1898, the golf ball already boasted a long history. For over four hundred years, artisans had crafted a ball known as the featherie, a hollow sack of leather painstakingly stuffed by hand with boiled goose feathers. Featherie fabrication came to an abrupt halt in 1845 when Robert Paterson fashioned a ball from the sap of trees found in Malaysia.

6 Featherie golf balls. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Geni

Known as gutties, they quickly supplanted featheries because they were easier and less expensive to make than their forebears. And if one happened to fly apart in cold weather, a golfer could easily gather the pieces, boil them, and form them once again into a perfectly good golf ball. 

old golf balls
A featherie and two different types of gutta-percha golf balls. These are often called "gutties". Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Horace Hutchinson

Haskell conceived his idea while visiting a playing partner who managed a Goodrich tire plant in Akron, Ohio. Though solid rubber is too soft to form a good golf ball, it can be stretched until it reaches a suitable degree of firmness, and herein lay Haskell's insight. Pulling threads of rubber taut and winding them upon themselves yields the basis for fashioning a superior ball. 

Of course, wound rubber has a bad tendency to fly about uncontrollably when let loose, and stories of Haskell's first creative efforts are part of golfing folklore. But Haskell persevered with the help of Goodrich engineers. Early refinements included an incompressible core about which to wind the threads, a balata cover, and better production techniques. Within a year, rudiments of the wound ball were well established.

Haskell's so-called bounding billies were met with considerable resistance by traditionalists as the market-savvy American promoted his invention. But there's no stopping progress, and the wound ball improved upon the quality most sought after by golfers — distance. The billies were such a success they spawned a burst of creative activity, including patent applications for balls made of steel and springs. Balls filled with compressed gas enjoyed limited commercial success until unwanted explosions proved their undoing. 

Remarkable is the fact that the wound ball remained the choice for touring golf professionals for over a hundred years. Despite phenomenal advances in synthetic materials throughout the twentieth century, competing ball designs with one or more solid layers were adopted by only a handful of professionals well into the 1990s.

As late as the year 2000, over seventy percent of the balls teed up at the U.S. Open were still of wound construction. When in that same year Tiger Woods used a solid-construction ball and won the Open by a record-setting fifteen strokes, the days of Haskell's balls were numbered. Only two years later, wound golf balls had all but disappeared.

Inside of a golf ball. Photo Credit: Andy Boyd

Time marches on, and with it the inevitable progress of our sporting equipment, thanks to improved science and engineering. Still, one can only marvel at the longevity of such a simple yet inspired idea as winding rubber thread to form a golf ball.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This episode is an updated version of episode 1716.

John F. Hotchkiss, 500 Years of Golf Balls, Dubuque, Iowa: Antique Trader Books, 1997.

"The Solid Truth," vol. 1. A publication of Precept Golf. 

This episode was first aired on March 24, 2016