Today, our guest, operations researcher Andrew
Boyd, tells about the simplest of toys, the golf
ball. The University of Houston presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
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 stuffed with boiled goose
feathers. Featherie fabrication came to an abrupt
halt when in 1845 Robert Paterson fashioned a ball
from the sap of trees found in Malaysia.
Known as gutties, they quickly supplanted
featheries because they were so much less expensive
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.
Haskell conceived his idea while he visited his
playing partner Bertrand Work, then manager of a
Goodrich 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 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, and with
the help of Goodrich engineers early refinements
such as an incompressible core about which to wind
the threads, a balata cover, and better production
techniques, the rudiments of the wound ball were
well established within a year of its conception.
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
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. Now, in 2002,
it's hard to even locate a wound ball.
Time marches on, and with it the inevitable
progress of our toys. 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 Andrew Boyd, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
An updated version of this episode can be found at 3058.
John F. Hotchkiss, 500 Years of Golf Balls,
Dubuque, Iowa: Antique Trader Books, 1997.
"The Solid Truth," vol. 1. A publication of Precept
Dr. Andrew Boyd is Chief Scientist and Senior Vice
President at PROS, a worldwide
provider of pricing and revenue optimization
solutions. Working with leading academicians and
practitioners, he directs an international group of
advanced-degree recipients in Economics, Operations
Research, Quantitative Marketing, and Statistics. Dr.
Boyd received his A.B. with Honors at Oberlin College
with majors in Mathematics and Economics in 1981, and
his Ph.D. in Operations Research from MIT in 1987.
Prior to joining PROS, he enjoyed a successful
ten-year career as a university professor, and he is
presently an adjunct professor at the University of
Since Haskell's wound balls centers were finally
replaced with new elastic materials, the inside of
a modern ball has become pretty uninteresting.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.