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The earliest evidence for bowling is some primitive bowling balls and large skittles of pottery and stone found by archaeologists in 1930 in a child’s grave in Egypt dating to about 3200 BCE. South Sea Islanders played ‘ula maika’ in antiquity, a game similar to skittles. They bowled stones over a distance of about 60 feet, the same length as modern day lanes.

A bowling game called ‘Kegeln’ developed in Germany from as early as the third century using ‘Kegels’ or pins. It was played in the long cloisters of churches and monasteries by worshippers and clerics alike, even by Martin Luther in the 16th century who standardized the number of pins used as nine, thereby inventing the game of nine pins. The pins were set up in a diamond formation with the middle pin being slightly taller than the others.

Bowling spread to nearby countries, including to England in the 13th century where it was initially known as ‘kayles’. Edward III banned bowling in 1366 as young men were missing archery practice, and other kings outlawed it as it became a gambling craze. But royals and aristocrats enjoyed the game too, constructing alleys at their palaces and mansions. The first indoor bowling alley was built in 1455 in London.

Henry VIII reputedly bowled with cannon balls. London’s bishop John Aylmer bowled on Sunday afternoons! Francis Drake kept bowling after his men told him the Spanish Armada was approaching in battle formation; he knocked down some more pins before skittling the Spaniards.

It was the Dutch who introduced bowling to the New World in 1626 at Manhattan Island, although it was the lawn version. English, German and Dutch migrants brought the game of nine pins with them across the Atlantic. Puritans tried to ban the pastime, although in 1658 one of their number confessed that he liked bowling and bet ten pounds on the outcome of a game, which he apparently won.

Bowling was popular in New York in the early 19th century and extended to many other parts of the country by the 1830s. The first indoor center in the US was Knickerbockers in New York City opening in1840. The sport soon became associated with gambling and crime. Huge bets were placed and many matches were rigged. Anyone who declined to play in a fixed match or refused to lose a game was likely to be beaten up. Authorities in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut classified bowling as gambling and therefore illegal.

A law was passed in Connecticut in 1841 prohibiting the game of nine pins. Legend has it that enthusiasts added a tenth pin to circumvent the law and the game of ten pin bowling was born. However, it should be noted that a painting from about 1810 at the International Bowling Hall of Fame and Museum, at St Louis, Missouri, shows English bowlers using a set of ten pins in triangular formation.

Germans had the most influence on the development of ten pin bowling in the US in the mid and late 19th century, due to their game of nine pins called ‘Kegelspiel’. They formed many bowling clubs before and, in particular, after the Civil War. The ten pin version grew alongside nine pins but the latter remained more popular. Ten pin alleys were built in saloons and clubs frequented by men, whereas nine pins was more family oriented.

This pattern began to change when New York restaurateur Joe Thum founded the American Bowling Congress (ABC) in 1895. This body standardized the rules for ten pin bowling. Thum also led the way in making bowling a more respectable game among the middle and upper classes. His bowling alley, The White Elephant, was one of a number of more elegant and luxurious centers opening at the time. He is often considered the father of ten pin bowling.

By World War I, most alleys had changed from nine pins to ten pins. The changeover became almost complete when a number of US cities banned nine pins in the 1930s when workers went to these alleys instead of to work. Most remaining nine pin centers converted to ten pin bowling in the 1950s with the advent of pin setting machines. Only Texas still has nine pin alleys.

The first women’s leagues were formed in 1907 and the Women’s International Bowling Congress was established by 40 women in St Louis in 1916. This further helped bowling gain respectability and the game went from strength to strength.

In the 1920s, the number of bowling centers in the US rose from 450 to 2,000. Prohibition helped bowling by reducing its association with alcohol and making it a more family friendly activity. The end of prohibition in 1933 also assisted the game as brewers pushed to sponsor leagues, teams and individuals. It cemented bowling’s image as a working class sport, with the fifth frame often still referred to as the ‘beer frame’ or ‘drinks frame’ where the bowler with the lowest score for that frame buys refreshments for the team.

From World War II until the mid 1960s was a golden era for bowling. The armed forces had promoted the sport heavily. Labor organizations lobbied successfully for non-whites to become ABC members, thereby supporting racial integration. Automatic pinspotters, invented in 1945, were first introduced commercially in 1952 and over the next several years steadily replaced the pin boys who were employed by alleys to stand the pins back up.

Television tournaments, which started in 1947, became very popular in the 1950s, helping to make bowling a national pastime. ABC membership grew from 1.1 million in 1947 to 4.6 million in 1963 and the number of lanes in the US increased from 44,500 to 159,000 over this period. By 1960 most centers were air-conditioned and carpeted, and offered services such as restaurants, child minding, billiard tables and pinball machines.

Bowling went through a slump in the late 1960s as the novelty of the game seemed to wear off and fewer young people were replacing the older competitors who treated their sport more seriously than the next generation. There was a lack of investment and many alleys closed, becoming restaurants, bingo halls, and gyms. Bowling waxed and waned for a number of years, having to compete against a plethora of indoor and outdoor sports and activities that grew each year.

A sustained resurgence occurred from the 1980s, with many new centers being built and old ones refurbished. The game marketed itself as a fun recreation with alleys offering parties and disco lighting, while at the same time catering to the serious bowler. Automatic scoring also helped as players didn’t need to know how to score or have to write down the result after each bowl.

Today, bowling alleys are often part of entertainment centers with restaurants, cinemas, night clubs and games rooms. In 2005, the United States Bowling Congress was formed from a merger of the men’s, women’s and youth associations. It maintains standards and rules, sanctions leagues and tournaments, and certifies coaches. The congress had 2.6 million paying members in 2008, more than any other sport. Bowling has come a long way from its time as a gambling activity for crooks and drunks. The sport is enjoyed by millions around the world.

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