Who invented the spinning top?

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We humans are intrigued by items that dance before our eyes, whether it’s a carousel or a skater’s spin, a yo-yo or a top. We appear to have an inborn attraction to circular movement as a species, something science has yet to explain.

When you add colour and song to that movement, a thrill, a happiness, arises from where no one appears to know. Tops dance in ways that language seems incapable of explaining in the hands of a great top master like Gerardo Montero.

Join us as we enter the realm of the world’s oldest toy, a realm of grace and movement. Join us as we see top-tier artwork at its finest, as Gerardo and others challenge us to reach the pinnacle of their spinning universe.

History of the Toy Spinning Top

Most of us have spun a stone on its edge or an acorn on its tip as a child at some point. As the intricacies of our stone or acorn fade away, a smoother, more cylindrical shape develops, this idea harkens back to the dawn of history. Enters the object’s ability to defy gravity and spin upright. It was maybe man’s first encounter with deception and a “special effect.”

Because stones were used as man’s initial tools, the invention of the top is believed to have occurred concurrently in numerous regions around the world. As a result, we are unable to name one person as the father or mother of toppery. (TOPPERY is the study of tops in all of their forms.) Clay tops going back to 3500 B.C. have been discovered in Iraq archaeologically.

Whip tops dating from around 1250 B.C. have been discovered in China. Tops were also popular among the ancient Greeks, who represented them in humorous top scenarios on their ceramics. Roman children used tops to liven up their summer afternoons as early as 300 B.C.

So, let’s go back in time and look at the kinds of tops our forefathers and moms left us, and maybe we’ll be able to suggest a few spinning variations that they hadn’t thought of.

Types of Toy Spinning Tops 

Whip Tops

Although there is historical evidence of whip tops all over the world, the first ones were most likely used in China thousands of years ago and brought to Europe by sailors returning from the Orient.

The whip top is essentially cone-shaped and made of wood or clay, with stronger materials such as iron being used in the eighteenth century. Whipping may appear to be difficult on the tops, but whip tops actually last longer than standard throwing tops since the base of the tops is not continually absorbing the impacts of falling on hard surfaces.

As a side note, it’s worth noting that in the “The whip top was specifically identified as an acceptable form of play in the “Orders, Statutes and Rules” of England’s Harrow School, though the rules stated, “The Scholars shall not be permitted to play, except upon Thursday only occasionally when the weather is fine, and upon Saturday, or half-holidays after prayer.” And their only game will be driving (whipping) the top, tossing a handball, running, or shooting (archery), and nothing else.”

In some English villages, a parish top (a whip top) is also mentioned. The parish top, which could weigh up to two pounds, would be stored in the town courtyard. To maintain spinning, such a top would have needed a lot of power, similar to the top in the video below, which needed many adults whipping it to keep it upright.

Throwing Tops

The throwing top is often made up of a string wrapped around the body of a cone-shaped or peg-shaped top. In today’s world, the tossing top is the most popular type of top. Throwing and landing on the tip at the top, as previously said, is quite difficult on the toy. As a result, a normal throwing top has a far shorter lifespan than a whip, twist, or pump top. A throwing top is also known as a “peg top.” Rather than having the peg inserted into the body as it is done now, the original peg tops were cut to a point.

The peg top is a skill-building top, owing to the fact that it requires throwing. When one has personal control over a top, there are many more things one can do with it than with other tops, which limit the interface between top and player. Wood is the most common material used to manufacture toss tops, however plastic is gaining traction as a viable alternative.

As previously stated, the peg (point) was once a part of the top. Hardwoods or bone were then utilised, followed by metal points, which were driven or cemented into the hole supplied for that purpose.

Speed and spin time improved as pegs became smaller and smaller, reducing friction between the top and the playing surface. There have been and continue to be devised and played a variety of games using throwing tops (see below – Battle Tops). During the 18th and 19th centuries, tops reigned supreme in the world of toys, particularly in Europe and America.

Twist Tops

Twist tops are generally defined as tops that are traditionally twisted with three fingers. These types of tops are the most basic and low-tech forms of this classic toy.

The longest spin times and the number of tops that can be set spinning in a given timeframe are usually the focus of twist top records.

A video of a young Indian gentleman attempting to set a record for the most twist tops set in motion in a five minute time can be found in the Records Section below. He’s hoping to break the 500-meter dash record. We haven’t heard anything about whether he was successful in establishing this record.

Readers of ToysPeriod are encouraged to share any information they may have on the subject.

Pump Gyro Tops

These tops were extremely popular in the late 1950s and are still widely available now.

A gyroscope spins inside the top once the plunger is pumped many times.

Because a gyroscope resists stopping once it has been activated, the top will continue to spin for a long time until friction between the top and the surface it is spinning on overcomes the inertial energy fed into the mechanism.

Because of the perforations indicated in the body of the top (at left), it will also make a buzzing sound (see below for further information). A sympathetic tone is struck as these apertures move through the air, allowing air to take on dynamic patterns both within and on the surface of the top, depending on the material of the top and its rotating speed.

Humming Tops

The gyroscope mechanism isn’t used by all humming tops. A twisting action is used to operate the vintage tops shown here (and on display at the Whistle Museum).

Others are propelled by a string or yo-yo mechanism (which is considered by many, a variety of top).