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Why Are Soccer Balls Made of Hexagons?

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Once upon a time, soccer balls (or footballs, depending on where you hail from) were inflated pig bladders wrapped in leather. One variation was an ancient Chinese game called “tsu chu,” using a ball stuffed with feathers. In medieval England, players used leather-covered wine bottles filled with cork shavings (to make them easily retrievable if they fell in the river). It wasn’t until 1844, when Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber, that soccer balls started taking shape. Literally.

In 1855, Goodyear created the first rubber soccer ball. Then, seven years later, H.J. Lindon developed an inflatable rubber bladder to make the ball easier to kick and maintain its pseudo-spherical shape. White soccer balls became the standard in 1951 (companies whitewashed the leather, and in the 1960s, began to use synthetic materials to achieve uniform thickness and prevent the balls from becoming misshapen), and if teams played winter matches, official orange soccer balls were manufactured for better visibility.

But the ball most commonly seen today—the one with black and white pentagons and hexagons—gained popularity in the 1960s.* Previously, leather soccer balls consisted of 18 sections stitched together: six panels of three strips apiece. This design stitched together 20 hexagons with 12 pentagons for a total of 32 panels. 

The ball made its World Cup debut as Adidas’ Telstar in 1970 in Mexico. The ball's pattern of white hexagons with black pentagons made it easily visible on television. An added bonus for players: The black pentagons helped them learn to curve the ball better by being able to track its movement more easily.

Adidas kept the ball's black-and-white color scheme until 2002, but the 32-panel buckyball might not stay in vogue much longer—Adidas launched its new generation of soccer balls for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups with the Teamgeist (14 panels) and Jabulani (8 panels) designs, respectively.

* Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the ball was invented by architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller. That would have been amazing. We sheepishly regret the error. Line up for a penalty kick.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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