A Patent for Tennis

1/29/2016 Curator's Corner

The Curator's Corner: Vol 2

Did you know that tennis was once patented, leading it to spread from Great Britain to the rest of the world?

While much of the equipment used to play some of our favorite sports – a baseball glove, a hockey stick, a football, and a basketball backboard – is patented, none of these sports were actually issued patents. Conversely, the popular sport of tennis – which we all love – was patented in 1874 by Hall of Famer Major Walter Clopton Wingfield (pictured below).

February 23rd marks the 142nd anniversary of the patent from Queen Victoria in 1874, for “a new and improved portable court for playing the ancient game of tennis.” More an evolution than an invention, Wingfield patented the game after others had previously combined sports like court tennis – a game played in medieval monasteries and other walled spaces –  to play a game similar to what Wingfield called Sphairistiké (soon called lawn tennis). Lawn tennis quickly spread throughout the world after Wingfield offered all the equipment and instruction needed for his game in a box set.  It was this convenience that sparked the popularity of lawn tennis in the late 19th century. Wingfield’s patent expired in 1877, allowing the game to further evolve to look more like the game we love today.

The game fit nicely with the virtuous social values of the Victorian Era. It was ruled by etiquette with no physical contact and could be played by both men and women together. Innovations in technology helped improve the game for casual players and tournament mainstays. 

Once the patent expired, companies like Jefferies & Co. were able to sell box sets like the ones Wingfield sent all over the world. This extremely rare lawn tennis set, made by Jefferies & Co. of Woolwich, England, is remarkably complete and was manufactured shortly after the first appearance of the Sphairistiké lawn tennis sets.

This set contains:

  • a pine box with its colorful manufacturer’s label
  • four tilt-head tennis racquets constructed of ash and strung with gut
  • a net
  • net poles (includes extensions to raise the net for playing badminton)
  • a center weight
  • guy ropes
  • metal pegs and canes
  • a reel of marking tape
  • an India-rubber ball
  • a rules book

Read more about Major Walter Clopton Wingfield and visit the museum to see the original patent and explore how the game evolved.

Museum Staff

Article posted by: Museum Staff. We can be reached at blog@tennisfame.com