(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Technology has had an enormous impact on ten pin bowling over the last 100 years. Major changes have included automatic pinspotters, automated scoring, different lane types and high-tech bowling balls. In the early 20th century, the sport used wooden balls and lanes, pins had to be set up manually, and someone had to keep score. All these features are now things of the past.
Before automatic pinspotters, bowling alleys employed pinsetters to manually stand up the pins after a bowler knocked them down, clear fallen pins, and roll the ball back along a track between the lanes. Pinsetting was low paid, part time and relatively dangerous, and was usually done by teenage boys who were often referred to as pinboys. A semi-automatic mechanical pinsetter was invented by Gottfried Schmidt in 1936. It was used in a limited number of alleys. A fully automatic pinspotter was first used in 1946 and became commercial in 1952. The machines made pinsetting and ball retrieval quicker, safer and more reliable. Over the next decade, they replaced pinboys in virtually all centers.
Another important technological change to ten pin bowling occurred in the 1980s with the introduction of automatic scoring. Until then, bowlers had to write down their scores using pencil and paper. In competition, scores were written on the monitor with special pencils and projected onto the overhang above the approaches. Automated computer scoring systems were developed that linked to the pinspotter machines and filled in the score sheet after each ball, although the early models needed someone to press the number of pins fallen or a spare or strike on the keyboard. This technology is credited as a major reason for the resurgence in bowling in the 1980s. Players could enter their names and the rest was done for them. They didn’t have to learn how to score, which can be complex for the general public and those lacking basic math skills.
Perhaps the biggest change in technology in ten pin bowling has been with the balls. The first bowling balls were roundish stones. These were replaced by manufactured wooden balls made of a hardwood such as oak or lignum vitae. Both were smaller than modern bowling balls and neither had finger holes. A hard rubber ball, the Evertrue, was first made in about 1906, followed by the rubber Mineralite ball in 1914. Rubber dominated until the 1970s when a softer plastic ball, usually polyester, was developed. These proved popular due to their higher scoring ability, but attracted the attention of the United States Bowling Congress (USBC) who set the minimum hardness of a ball at 72 on the durometer scale. The USBC also set limits on top and side weight to prevent unfair hooking advantage.
Balls with a polyurethane cover were introduced in 1981 and with a reactive resin cover around 1990. These balls gripped the lane better and produced higher scores for many bowlers. Competition among bowling ball manufacturers to see who could produce the highest scoring balls intensified, resulting in major changes to the core of a ball. The core had always been a uniform sphere wrapped in the outer casing, but in the 1990s various innovations were introduced. Different materials and methods of manufacture resulted in cores with a greater range of densities that assisted various bowlers. The USBC was forced to move from static ball balance regulations to dynamic balance regulations. A bowling ball now has to be measured along three axes to ensure it complies with the rules and doesn’t give an unfair advantage: the x-axis which is a line through the ball parallel to the foul line, the y-axis which is a line parallel to the boards, and the z-axis which is the vertical line through the ball.
Another major technological change in ten pin bowling has been to the lanes themselves. All lanes were made of wood, consisting of maple and pine boards, until synthetic lanes were first introduced in 1977. Since that time, alleys have steadily converted to the new lane type. Synthetic lanes are the same in appearance to the old wooden lanes, but are cheaper and easier to maintain and, combined with advances in lane oiling products and patterns, give a truer ball roll and higher scores.
The changes in ball and lane technology forced many bowlers to change their shot or be less competitive. The full-roller, which used to be a popular choice for bowlers and was effective at all levels of competition on drier lanes and with the old rubber and plastic balls, has virtually become obsolete. The full-roller contacts the lane on the same circumferential circle on each rotation, gathering oil as it travels down the lane, resulting in too much skid and not enough hook. Similarly, those who angled a straight or almost straight ball into the pocket are also at a disadvantage with the modern technology for the same reasons. Accuracy is no longer enough to be competitive in scratch events; you need a ball with a decent curve as well.
Today, the semi-roller has become the dominant shot. With the rubber and plastic balls, a semi-roller would also roll over the same area of the ball each rotation. But with the reactive bowling balls, a semi-roller will roll over a different ring each time, with the rings becoming a bit larger with each rotation. Thus a dry part of the surface of the ball is always making contact with the lane, increasing traction, and giving the ball more forward and side roll, or more revolutions. This makes the ball curve or hook more and results in better pin action and higher scoring.
Ball technology has made it more difficult to prepare a lane condition that is fair to all bowlers. High average bowlers with high-tech equipment want oily conditions to make their high revving shots hold a reasonable line and score well. Other bowlers who don’t throw a ball that is as strong want less oil so that their ball comes up to the pocket. Certainly, technology has led to higher scores for certain types of bowlers as evidenced by the huge increase in the number of 300 games and 800 series over the last three decades.
The USBC has been concerned that ten pin bowling is becoming a sport where technology rather than skill increasingly determines success. In 2000, it introduced ‘sport bowling’ where lane conditions are highly regulated, with more even oiling patterns, making it harder to bring the ball into the pocket and make huge scores. This seems to be a more popular option to reduce scores, rather than to make the pins heavier. The USBC’s ongoing concern prompted it to set up a Bowling Ball Specifications Task Force which conducted a study in 2006 and 2007 into how ball motion and technology was effecting scoring. To date, no changes have been made to the rules for bowling balls as a result of the study.