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A Brief History of Foosball

Foosball image via Shutterstock

Outside the U.S., the sport where two teams try to kick a ball into the other side's goal without using their hands is known as “football.” However, when it comes to the tabletop version of the game, it seems impossible to reach a consensus. In the UK, the game is “table football.” In France, it’s adorably called “baby foot.” In much of Eastern Europe, it’s “kicker,” after one of the first companies to produce game tables. And in Spain, it’s "futbolín." As usual, Americans have to be different, so we’ve borrowed the German word for “football”, “fußball”, which is pronounced “foosball.” But because the game is played all over the world, there are dozens of regional nicknames for this very popular pastime.

The origins of foosball are a bit murky.

Some sources believe that it started as a parlor game in the 1880s or 1890s, possibly in different parts of Europe simultaneously. Nobody is sure who invented it. Frenchman Lucien Rosengart, an automobile engineer for Citroen, claimed to have come up with the game to keep his grandchildren entertained in the winter. But Alexandre de Fiesterra also said he had the idea while in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained in the Spanish Civil War. The only thing we can say for sure is that Englishman Harold Searles Thornton has the earliest-known patent from 1923, which looks and operates just like the game we know today.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

To the average novice player, a foosball table is a foosball table. However, to a die-hard “fooser,” there are four distinct styles, which necessitate different styles of play.

For example, American style foosball, also known as “Texas foosball,” is generally played on a dense, solid table surface like mahogany, the ball is usually thick plastic, and the foosball men are made of harder plastic, all of which makes for a fast game where power rules. In addition, American tables have three men on the goalie bar as opposed to one goalie in other countries, enabling the player to pull the ball out of the corner without stopping gameplay.

In contrast, French foosball is played on a linoleum surface with a “tacky” feel and a cork ball, making the gameplay much more controlled, with an emphasis on passing the ball and setting up shots, just like real football.

German tables are the softest of the bunch, providing ultimate control of the ball to strategically line up shots on over-sized goals.

Finally, Italian tables are a good mix of styles, well known for using either sandblasted glass to allow for faster gameplay, or plastic laminate to slow things down for precision ball handling.

Professional Foosball Tours America

Foosball was first brought to the United States by Lawrence Patterson, an American military man who was stationed in Germany during the 1960s. While there, he fell in love with table soccer and imported coin-operated machines after he came home. As the popularity grew, Patterson helped found some of the first regional tournaments in the late-1960s. However, it was Missoula, Montana, bar-owner and foosball-enthusiast E. Lee Peppard who made foosball a national phenomenon, when he introduced his own custom brand of table, known as the Tournament Soccer table, and used high-stakes tournaments to promote his product.

His first tournament was held in 1972 with a prize purse of $1,500. By 1975, he founded the Quarter-Million Dollar Professional Foosball Tour, a traveling tournament that hit 32 cities across the country, with prizes ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000. As the tournament crisscrossed the country from January until August, some of the winners traveled along, living off the purses they’d score, in the hopes they might be one of the lucky few to compete in the International Tournament Soccer Championships, a $100,000 tournament held on Labor Day Weekend in Denver.

The Championship tournament topped out at an impressive $1,000,000 in 1978, but shortly after, video games like Pac-Man took a sizable bite out of foosball revenue. Some estimates say that before video games, Tournament Soccer sold upwards of 1,000 tables every month; after video games hit, that number dropped to about 100. Unable to sustain the big money tournaments on such slim sales, Tournament Soccer filed for bankruptcy in 1981.

Smaller manufacturers were able to keep the tournament going until 2003, when the Championships moved to Europe and are now regulated by the International Table Soccer Federation. Although the game isn't as popular as it once was, there are still plenty of high-profile tournaments across the country with thousands of dollars in prize money to be had.

Check out this great slideshow featuring many moments from the heyday of professional foosball:

Foosball Vintage Slide Show from Stephan Dharma on Vimeo.

Learning from the Pros

For most people, playing foosball is a combination of spinning the little men as hard and as often as they can, while hoping that the ball somehow careens into a man in mid-spin and by some miracle, happens to land in the goal. Of course that’s not the case for the pros, who practice for years to control the ball and learn proper passing techniques in order to line up the perfect shot. If you want to become a master of foos fu, check out this helpful tutorial from the UK’s Robert Atha, one of the top-ranked foosball players in the world:

http://youtu.be/hdoH3-7NqX0

Luxury Foosball Tables

If you're in the market for a foosball table, you can pick up a good quality model starting at around $500. But if you have a little money to spare, there are more impressive examples to be found.

Teckell Krystall Series – $7,500 and up

The Teckell Collection from B.Lab features eight different models all made with crystal glass sides and playing surface. Available options include walnut accents, aluminum hardware, or even gold-plated handles, all hand-crafted for precision and beauty. A small, coffee table model starts around $7,500, while the stand-up models start at $10,000 and go up from there. How far? Far enough I couldn't find a price for most models.

Mars Made Custom Foosball Table - $13,000

Mars Made has two custom foosball tables available. The powder-coated steel side panels and solid aluminum body of the Foos I gives you more of an industrial feel, while the retro TV-inspired design of the Foos II features an aluminum case with carbon fiber playing surface.

Audi Foosball Table - ~$16,000

In 2008, Audi Design developed an aluminum foosball table. Originally produced only as a one-off promotional item, customer demand convinced the company to produce 20 of them in 2010 for high-rolling fans.

Barbie Foosball - $25,000

© Rainer Jensen/dpa/Corbis

French designer Chloe Ruchon has done the impossible – combining the machismo of sports with the pretty pretty princess pink of the infamous Barbie doll. This 2009 design, featuring 22 armless Barbie dolls, was sold exclusively at FAO Schwarz, and can count Charlie Sheen as one of the proud owners.

Lux Gold Foosball Table -~$28,000

The Lux Gold uses only the highest-quality materials, like stainless steel and unbreakable glass to create a beautiful yet durable table that will last generations. Choose between 50 different colors for the table's accents, and from 12 different styles and materials for the men, to give your game room a unique centerpiece.

The Opus - $34,500

Design company Eleven Forty has come up with a foosball table that can truly be called your own. Made with etched glass, stainless steel, and a highly polished wood casing, perhaps the most impressive feature are the figures. Eleven Forty can scan in photographs of your friends and family and cast detailed recreations onto the players. If you don't want to get that personal, you can also create a Good vs. Evil table, featuring famous, unlikely players like Jack the Ripper, Gandhi, President Obama, Idi Amin, and more.

The Beautiful Game - ~$68,000

Inspired by modern football stadiums, The Beautiful Game, from 11, a design house in the Netherlands, is the crème de la crème of foosball tables. The table features chromed metal players, lights embedded in the playing field to display the current score and goal areas, and requires 12 weeks to build by hand. The Beautiful Game table will definitely make an impression – even if your foosball skills won't.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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