A top balances on a little tip while it spins. The axis of the top tilts to the side as it begins to wobble, allowing the force of gravity to apply a torque on the top. The torque has the effect of producing more spin while also driving the top to precess (swing) outward.
Even today, the spinning top, or Lattoo, remains a popular game in Indian villages. This game can be played by two or more players. All of the players wrap the thread around their tops and then pull it to unwind it, causing the top to rotate on the ground. The players must pick the top with the string as quickly as possible.
An ancient Roman wooden spinning top from Tebtunis (Egypt), dated from the first to third centuries CE.
One of the oldest recognisable toys discovered on ancient sites is the top. Spinning tops have their origins in a variety of cultures around the world.
Tops have been used for gambling and prophecy in the past, in addition to being used as toys. Tops are used in some role-playing games to supplement dice in generating randomised results; this is referred to as a spinner in this situation.
As possible precursors to the top, Gould mentions maple seeds, celts (which lead to rattlebacks), the fire-drill, the spindle whorl, and the potter’s wheel, which he argues was invented or discovered several times in multiple places.
Methods of spinning
Twirling my fingers
Smaller tops have a short stem that is twirled with the fingers to get them moving. In the same way, a thumbtack can be made to spin on its point.
Whips and strings
A typical fist-sized model, typically made of wood with a blunt iron tip, is activated by yanking on a cord or rope tightly coiled around the body. The rope should be twisted from the tip up along the enlarging body, so that the tension of the string remains fairly constant as the angular speed of the top increases.
These tops can be thrown forward while holding the end of the rope firmly in your hand and pulling it back. The top’s forward motion affects the string’s tension and, as a result, the final spin rate.
The top is thrown upside-down in some throwing styles, but the initial loop of the rope is looped around a stubby “head.” The spinning top then flips over and lands on its tip due to the sharp strain on the head when the string unwinds.
Tops of this class can also be started by hand and then accelerated and maintained in motion by continuously striking them with a tiny whip.
A built-in metal auger is used to propel some of the larger variants (spiral plunger). The actual top of the toy may be surrounded in a hollow metal shell with the same axis but dissociated from it in these variants, allowing the toy to seem motionless but “magically” balanced on its tip.
Fields of magnetism
Magnetic fields rotating from a specific ground plate keep some modern tops in motion indefinitely.