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I have a character that travels back in time, from present-day USA, to medieval Europe - specifically, year 1272, present-day UK.

Say in this scenario, they really enjoyed those sports in modern USA and wanted to re-create the basketball and soccer ball as much as possible in that era (using only materials/tools available in that era) to play with people there.

What could they use to make an effective basketball and soccer ball to resemble as closely as possible to the modern basketball and soccer ball?

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    $\begingroup$ You can make inflated balls from intestines, but you won't get the same kind of bounce (particularly important in basketball) without rubber. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Feb 18 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ Go medieval, for soccer you can use someone's head. It will make executions much more entertaining. $\endgroup$ – Renan Feb 18 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Mazura: Which is... ? $\endgroup$ – Zaibis Feb 19 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Zaibis: Please don't feed the troll. $\endgroup$ – WhiteMaple Feb 19 at 7:56
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Before vulcanized rubber, soccer balls were made with inflated pig's bladder wrapped in leather. Such materials have been available for many centuries.

Basketball balls were originally re-purposed soccer balls. But this was after the invention of vulcanized rubber. Basketballs have always been rubber. Needing to bounce efficiently is difficult to achieve without a good grade of rubber.

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    $\begingroup$ If the objective isn't to mass-produce but only to make a few of these, there are other sources of rubber than the rubber tree. Various harvestable plants produce modest amounts of latex. Sulfur is probably also available in the necessary quantities. Vulcanizing rubber isn't so much of a high-tech process. The real trick would be to get it into the correct shape, which might be impossible in that time period. $\endgroup$ – John O Feb 19 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO The glassblowers of the time would have likely had the transferable skills needed to make hollow spherical rubber balls, it might take them a few tries to figure out the exact differences in the mediums, but I doubt it would be a big learning curve. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Feb 19 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki-ReinstateMonica I'm thinking that you actually need some mold/form. But to be honest I've never really looked up how they're manufactured. I know how it's done for tires, and they'd have a hell of a time making the negative molds for those... can't really do it without machining tools. $\endgroup$ – John O Feb 19 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO Negative molds could be made out of quicklime cement using the lost wax method. Both of these technologies are over 2000 years old and require nothing but highly accessible easily refined materials. Blown balls would be stronger because they would not have an equatorial seam, but would be harder to get to "regulation size" if your protagonist cares about such things. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Feb 19 at 20:24
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Soccer is not an issue. It has origins dating back to many ancient civilizations including the Greeks, Romans, Chineeze, and various Mesoamerican civilizations which all independently developed similar games that influenced modern soccer which was standardized by the British Empire in 1863. The earliest versions of these balls in Europe were made from seeds or hair tightly wrapped in linen, and your medieval people would likely already know how to make these balls and already be playing games very similar to soccer.

Basketball is a much trickier issue. Of the early soccer like games, only Tlachtli used a bouncy rubber ball that would have made basketball possible prior to the invention of modern inflated vulcanized rubber balls. The game goes back over 3000 years to about the time that natural rubber was discovered. Even though rubber was not first seen in Europe until the 16th century AD, it is now known that there are a few thousand species of plants that can be used to make various kinds of natural rubbers. Tlachtli balls were made out of solid rubber so they would be much heavier than a basketball, but they still would have dribbled well enough to make the game a possibility.

If your timetaveler has as decent understanding of modern botany, he would probably be able to figure out how to make his own version of a Tlachtli ball using just the plants found in nature around him. Sulfur has also been used for various things since the ancient times; so, if your time traveler also has a general understanding of chemistry, he could make vulcanized rubber and therefore modern balls. If he has a more advanced understanding of modern botany, he would also know that that certain plants have curative properties that create results similar to vulcanization when combined with natural latex.

In short, if your time traveler is just a random schmuck thrust back in time, he probably won't be able to play basketball, but if he is scientifically minded enough, it won't be hard to make one from local resources.

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    $\begingroup$ "In Nazi Germany, research projects tried to use dandelions as a base for rubber production, but failed" [Wikipedia] $\endgroup$ – Alexander Feb 18 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ I believe the issue with Germany was that they were looking for military grade rubber for things like wheels and load bearing straps. Dandelion latex is not great under intense stress like that, but for a simple bouncy ball, it should do just fine. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Feb 18 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ "was the precursor to" No it wasn't. It may have existed before them, but it was not a precursor in any way. Various forms of football existed in Europe before Columbus, without using rubber in the balls. They were not influenced by the South American ball game, and in fact the rules of the South American ball game were lost with the destruction of the various cultures which practised it. What is played today as a tourist spectacle is entirely a modern invention. $\endgroup$ – Graham Feb 19 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham Many cultures independently developed variations on soccer all over the world, but soccer was not standardized as we know it today until 1863. By this point, Europe had already been heavily influenced by many different cultures from around the world including a preference for bouncy balls which was descended from European exposure to Tlachtli centuries earlier. I've updated my answer to make this more clear. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Feb 19 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ That's more accurate, yes. I'd still disagree with the claim that the Mesoamerican ball game(s) might have influenced European ball games, considering that soccer was invented before rubber was used in football construction, and all we know about that game is through archaeology and some modern invention. A bouncier ball creates the possibility of other games, sure, but the use of rubber (which by that point mostly came from the Far East anyway!) doesn't mean the Incas had any influence on the game. But your answer is much better now. :) $\endgroup$ – Graham Feb 19 at 21:29
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Inflatable game balls go back to at least the mid-19th century, and the ideas behind them could have been implemented as far back as it was possible to make a needle type inflation system.

The outer skin of the ball, like very old basketballs (my family had a laced leather basketball that was old in the 1970s) and more recent American footballs, would be sewn from split leather, with the seams on the inside, the bladder (made from an actual animal's urinary bladder) inserted, the ball closed with lacing, and air pumped in through a valve formed from one of the ureters pushed inside the bladder. A needle with hemispherical tip and cross bore outlet is pushed in through the valve (which is usually hidden under the lacing), and the internal pressure causes the valve to self-seal when the needle is withdrawn.

The lacing is done with flat leather lace, which can be pulled tight and self-locked (though for folks from our own time, it might take a while to learn to lace the ball so the lacing lies flat).

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  • $\begingroup$ Shakespeare referenced tennis balls in several of his plays, though his would have been made from wood wrapped in leather. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Feb 19 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ Or a leather skin stuffed with feathers, like golf balls of that day. I recall it as "a top hat full" of feathers to go into a ball cover the same diameter as a modern ball. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Feb 19 at 15:41
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As early as the 2nd century, there is known to be Cuju, the earliest form of football known. The ball is typically made out of leather, stuffed with feathers

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuju




Also in Southeast Asian history, there is Sepak Takraw, involving a ball made out of (rubber today) woven bamboo traditionally. Though the rules are more like volleyball than football, I reckon that the football rules could be applied too ....

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sepak_takraw

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