Principles of Aerodynamics: Tech Art or Cave Art?

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Tech Art or Cave Art?

It is tempting to assume that all of the great tech stuff happened after we figured out how to make beach sand into microchips. But with a pastime as ancient as golf, something must have clicked early on or it never would have survived this long.

Tech Art or Cave Art?

It is tempting to assume that all of the great tech stuff happened after we figured out how to make beach sand into microchips. But with a pastime as ancient as golf, something must have clicked early on or it never would have survived this long. That hook may well have been the Featherie golf ball, perfected by the Dutch around five or six hundred years ago from a basic technique used for game balls in ancient Rome. They would stuff a hatful of wet feathers (and remember, they liked BIG hats in those days) into a wet inch-and-a-half leather pouch, sew it up, and let it dry. The feathers would expand, and the leather would shrink, creating a ball as hard as... well, a golf ball. This made for a very resilient and lively projectile, especially when compared to the wooden(!) balls used previously.

The featherie performed remarkably well on the links, as evidenced by a recorded drive of 361 yards by Samuel Messieux in 1836, at the Old Course in St. Andrews! Sure, it was just skin and bird hair, but it was still a quantum leap by any measure, sort of the transistor of golf balls. For more than 400 years, it was the ball of choice. That is, if you could afford it. These ball's extravagant cost (the best ballmakers could produce only four or five per day) sealed their ultimate fate when the cheap ''guttie'' ball appeared around 1850.

 

Blind Genius

This new ball was made from a solid piece of gutta percha, a natural gum from Malaysia. Not only did it make a cheap and durable golf ball, it also made a lively, rounder and smoother one without the featherie's ugly stitched seams. Thus it was both unfortunate and inexplicable that the guttie's performance was no match for the featherie. It ducked and veered unpredictably, falling considerably short of the old bag of feathers.

But hackers soon noticed that the more they scarred the ball, the longer and straighter it flew. So why wait? Fresh new gutties were soon being mercilessly hammered right out of the box, before the first stroke was taken. Golf ball aerodynamics had been discovered, if not understood. For 400 years, no one had suspected that the featherie owed its graceful flight to its ugly seams, which acted like the scars of a veteran guttie.

 

Behold the Dimple

Pounding each new guttie must have been quite inconvenient, not to mention inconsistent. So it didn't take a rocket scientist (fortunately, considering the era) to figure out that there would be a marketing advantage for a pre-hammered ball. By the turn of the century, gutties were being sold with all manner of grooves, gouges, divots, bumps, and lumps already molded into their surfaces. Of course, aerodynamics was still a murky endeavor at that time, so these designs were more artistic than scientific. But they were still far better than smoothness. Out of this field, the emerging early winner was a design called the bramble pattern, which featured a closely packed array of bumps like the surface of a raspberry.

Today, we might still be using golf balls resembling fruit if not for English engineer William Taylor. In 1908 he received a patent for, among other things, an inverted bramble pattern which consisted of evenly distributed circular depressions covering the surface of the ball. That's patentese for dimples. Unlike many of the other configurations, dimples proved to be as effective aerodynamically as they were cosmetically, and they virtually owned the market by 1930. Aside from occasional departures, the circular dimple in one form or another has been pretty much standard equipment ever since.

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