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—was first designed in the 1960s by architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, whose forte was designing buildings using minimal materials. Previously, leather soccer balls consisted of 18 sections stitched together: six panels of three strips apiece. The soccer ball Fuller designed stitched together 20 hexagons with 12 pentagons for a total of 32 panels. Its official shape is a spherical polyhedron, but the design was nicknamed the “buckyball.”

The first buckyball used in official soccer matches was Adidas’ Telstar in the 1970 World Cup Finals in Mexico. Adidas developed a pattern of white hexagons with black pentagons to make the ball 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 buckyball’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.

Fuller’s design earned a spot in molecular immortality. In 1996, Rice University scientists Harold Kroto, Robert Curl and Richard Smalley earned a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering a spherical molecule with the formula C60 that they named Buckminsterfullerene. The molecule is made of (you guessed it) 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons.

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August 16, 2013 - 9:30am
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