The Strange History of Foosball and Table Soccer
In the 1880s, America was smack in the middle of the second Industrial Revolution. Modern cities were planned, skyscrapers were built. It was a period of steep economic growth and transformation.
Toilet paper was invented at this time, along with ballpoint pens and the electric iron. Many sports industry scholars believe that this is also the decade that gave rise to the modern foosball table.
Yes, the same game that livens up any basement or garage can trace its roots back nearly 150 years! Today, we're taking a look back at the rich history of this beloved pastime. We'll also explore how it's changed, improved, and grown over the years!
Where Did the Idea for the Foosball Table Originate?
There were patents for table games similar to foosball issued as far back as the 1880s. By the 1890s, a very basic form of the contest emerged as a parlor game across many parts of Europe.
Yet, it would still be some time before it reached the masses. Among researchers, there are conflicting accounts of exactly which inventor first came up with an organized foosball table. However, many credit the notion to an illustrious and enterprising man named Lucien Rosengart.
A well-known French inventor and engineer, Rosengart owned many patents during the early 1900s. Among the most notable were ones for railway and bicycle parts, as well as a special artillery shell that could explode in mid-air. Toward the end of the 1930s, Rosengart claimed that he developed a rudimentary foosball table as a way to entertain his grandchildren during France's brutal winters.
In due time, the at-home hobby took hold, and similar tables began to appear in cafes across the country. In those early years, the foosball players wore either red or blue to represent the French flag. The goal? To send the message that this entertaining new game was the result of French ingenuity and inventiveness.
Rosengart vs. Finisterre
Many scholars believe Rosengart's initial creation most closely matches the modern foosball game. Still, there are some who attribute the idea to another inventor during that time.
More than 600 miles away, Alexandre de Finisterre was laid up in a convalescent home in the Basque region of Spain. As he recovered from injuries sustained during a bombing in the Spanish Civil War, the story goes that Finisterre conjured up rough designs for a variated form of table tennis. He was living with other injured children who had no way to play football, and he dreamed of a smaller version that anyone could enjoy.
He teamed up with a local carpenter, Francisco Javier Altuna, to bring his vision to life.
In the late 1930s, Finisterre patented the invention as "fútbolin". The only issue? He claims the official papers were lost in a storm as he fled to France during General Franco's 1936 coup d'état.
As you might imagine, determining who actually came up with the early idea for foosball in Europe is a fairly divisive issue. Still, whether it was the brainchild of Rosengart or Finisterre, one thing is for certain. It's well-documented who eventually got the first documented patent for the game of foosball as we know it today.
The Inventive Mind of Harold Searles Thornton
The game that makes any get-together more fun might not have even been created had it not been for the Tottenham Hotspur F.C., the English professional football club formed in 1882.
A massive fan of the club, Harold Searles Thornton wanted to find a way to capitalize on the growing popularity of football, or soccer as we know it in the U.S. He sought to create a version that would allow people to play in the comfort of their own homes, and the idea of table football was born.
In a true rush of inspiration, Harold designed the first drawings for the idea on the back of a pack of matches! Why there? Turns out, it wasn't just because they were the only drawing surface handy.
Harold saw loose matches lying on the top of the box, extending past the edges. That simple layout sparked his creativity, and he imagined different football players skewered on rods, suspended over a shared playing field.
From there, he refined the design and applied for a patent. On November 1, 1923, his patent was granted.
A few years later, in 1927, Harold's uncle, Louis P. Thorton, visited him in England from his home in Oregon. Enchanted with the game of table football, he tried to bring it back to the United States. Though he was granted a patent in 1927, the game failed to take off. As such, Thorton let the patent eventually expire.
Bringing the Game to the United States
Decades went by and the concept of foosball remained largely European. That is, until another man decided to bring it back into the popular culture.
Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, Larry Patterson's name might not have made it into the sports history books. However, in 1962, he developed the first coin-operated foosball machine, branding it as table soccer.
Stationed with the U.S. military in West Germany in the early 1960s, Patterson saw firsthand how popular table football had become in the region. Realizing a potentially lucrative opportunity, he decided to bring this game back to the U.S. shore. Could he succeed where Thorton hadn't?
The answer is "yes" and it's all thanks to detailed planning and a keen eye for design.
Patterson was hands-on with the endeavor from the very beginning. All of his tables were manufactured in Bavaria, Germany according to his exact specifications. Some reports explain that each design encompassed around 10 to 12 pages of specific construction instructions!
Naming the Table and Expanding the Business
What would Patterson name his new tables?
He decided to derive his brand moniker from the German word for soccer, "fussball". This word literally translates to "foot" plus "ball". Changing it and Americanizing it slightly, he trademarked the name "Foosball" to describe his game. He also labeled his tables as "Foosball Match".
At first, Patterson sold his foosball tables under the name of his firm, L.T. Patterson Distributors. They were purchased by leaders in the coin industry and set up as arcade games in bars and pubs around the U.S. This was right during the advent of the early arcade craze, which would grow to massive proportions in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1965, he incorporated his business and the brand became Patterson International, Inc. Four years later, in 1969, the company underwent its final transformation and was known as the American Youth Marketing Corporation.
Between the time of his patent in 1962 until 1965, Patterson managed to sell 4,000 of his speciality-designed tables. To any earnest inventor, this would be considered a modest and encouraging success. However, Patterson wanted to expand even more and sell as many units as possible.
To reach this goal, he decided to launch a franchise of his business in 1967. He devised a plan that would allow franchisees to buy their tables for a monthly fee. In exchange, they would be guaranteed a specific geographical location, where they could install their machines around town without competition.
From that point until 1973, he built and shipped 10,000 more tables! Advertisements for Foosball Match tables could be found across all types of popular print media at the time, including Life Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.
By 1968, some of the licensees had started to establish table soccer tournaments. They hoped the idea would take off and spread like wildfire, but reports claim that their vision was never fully supported. As such, most widespread tournaments fizzled out by 1970.
In 1971, American Youth Marketing Corporation shut its doors for good. Yet, the story doesn't end there. In time, other manufacturers soon picked up on the game and kept it alive!
The First American-Made Foosball Table
Right around the time that Patterson was making his exit from the foosball industry, two other men were preparing to join the ranks. Their names were Bob Hayes and Bob Furr, and their intent was a simple one. They wanted to create the very first foosball table made right in the United States.
The result? The Tornado Foosball Table.
In the early days of their company, Hayes and Furr built around 400 of their Tornado foosball tables. They quickly went to work placing them in local bars, pool halls, arcade rooms and more. To this day, they're still built at the company's Richland Hills, Texas facility.
The Tornado's design was newer, sleeker and more tech-savvy than any that had come before it. It wasn't long before foosball grew from an niche hobby to a national phenomenon. Those tournaments that franchisees from American Youth Marketing Corp. tried to get off the ground? They began popping up all across the country.
Every major news outlet, including 60 Minutes, covered the tournaments, where both amateur and professional players could duke it out to claim the title of victory. While some tournaments kept the stakes relatively small, others were more incentivized. Some even gave out Corvettes and Porsches to the winners!
One of the top ones? The Quarter-Million Dollar Professional Football Tour. Established by bar owner E. Lee Peppard in Missoula, Montana, the tournament showcased a different type of table created by none other than Peppard himself. He called the table the Tournament Soccer Table and used it to host events in more than 30 cities across the United States.
With prizes that soared to $20,000, this was one of the most well-attended and popular foosball tournaments of its time. Yet, it didn't hold a candle to the International Tournament Soccer Championship (ITSC), which issued a grand prize of $1 million in the 1978 final match, held in Denver. The ITSC soon became the go-to championship that professional foosball players all aspired to reach.
The Impact of the ITSC
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, arcade games became more varied and fine-tuned. Pac-Man came on the scene, along with Frogger, Donkey Kong and a host of other beloved characters.
In response, the blazing popularity of the ITSC began to wane. Table sales dipped from roughly 1,000 per month to only 100. Eventually, the ITSC filed for bankruptcy in 1981. Still, the determined little game from Europe held on.
In 2003, the U.S. joined the International Table Soccer Federation. Representatives attend the Multi-Table World Championships in Nantes, France every year, where the sport is still very much revered. At these championships, five different types of foosball games are played, showcasing its global reach.
American-style tables are called "Hard Court" tables, due to their speed and powerful playing techniques. As the name implies, the players, ball and playing surface are all flat and hard. On the other hand, European/French-style tables are called "Clay Courts" and feature non-balanced men, a soft and light ball, and a linoleum playing surface.
Then, there is the European or German-style foosball table, called the "Grass Court". These tables feature supportive elements that soften and cushion both the players and the ball. In all, there are around 11 individual variations of the traditional foosball table, and each region plays on its own unique one.
Where Can You Buy Foosball Tables Today?
Are you looking for a foosball table for sale? Though institutions like the ITSC and American Youth Marketing Corporation are no longer active, foosball is still very much a popular and growing sport. Around the country, players continue to be passionate about the game, even if their time behind the table is limited to their home.
Today, you can find high-quality foosball tables from a variety of online distributors. The key thoroughly vet your source before making a purchase to ensure that all components are solid, well-made and built to last. Our foosball table reviews can help steer you in the right direction!
Game Night Just Got Better
Are you looking to amplify your at-home entertainment? It can be so refreshing to take a break from the screen and engage in a good, old-fashioned foosball showdown.
If you don't already have a foosball table at your home, we can help you find the perfect one. Contact us today to learn more and get ready to become the talk of the neighborhood in the very best way.