Pushball, a Game for Giants that Bewitched Britain

  • 2017-06-01
  • The Guardian

A search of the patents registered in the second half of the 19th century by Moses G Crane of Massachusetts reveals a man who was never short of ideas. There is an egg-beater, an ice-cream freezer, a method of making pliers, a restyled bicycle, an electro-mechanical gong and a gun-barrel scraper. There are also several versions of and adjustments to his most lasting contribution to society, the fire alarm, the success of which provided him with enough money to pursue one of his more far-fetched flights of fancy.

Crane had three sons who played football at Harvard, but he was not a fan of the sport. Apparently he believed that “to the average person without a college education it is incomprehensible, dull, cruel”, and he was particularly irritated at how hard it was to follow the progress of a small brown ball on a crowded, and often quite brown, field. And so Crane donned his thinking cap. “If the ball were only made large,” he said, “yes, large enough so that a player on one side could not see who was on the other, you would then have a chance to interest spectators in watching the whole game and in introducing much merriment, as well as skill.” In 1894 he found someone who could make his monster ball, at a cost – for materials alone – of some $175, about $4,500 in today’s money, and after several months of experimentation his son Edwin produced some rules. Pushball was born.

The following year it was mentioned for the first time in the British press, with several papers carrying news of the new “Yankee invention”. “The new game has some of the essential features of football, but possesses many original points,” they wrote. “The ball itself is a great curiosity. It can be moved with very slight pressure – indeed, a good wind will send it rolling across the field at a lively rate.” The only thing stopping the game spreading in popularity was the somewhat limiting fact that there was only one ball in existence. But like Crane himself, some people saw the absence of something as an opportunity. EV Hanegan, a British entrepreneur, read about the sport, thought it might just catch on in his homeland, and started planning.

“Pushball is a game for giants. Such a game as the gods on Olympus might have played without great loss of dignity,” Hanegan wrote. “In Connecticut, where the game found its first popularity, they despise parlour games, and when the monster push-ball was invented the strenuous athletes found it just the thing to give them the real exercise that they hungered for in games, and they hailed push-ball with acclamations. Now the game is one of the joys of life to the youth of New England.”