How Sweet It Is: Basketball Engineering

Engineering and basketball go together as we begin the Sweet 16 games in the NCAA tournament, but just how has engineering affected the game?


Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.
Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.

In 1891, at Springfield College, Massachusetts, Dr. James Naismith, a thirty-year old physical education instructor, was encouraged to create an indoor, winter “athletic distraction.” Using two vegetable baskets, a soccer ball, nine men per team, and a ladder to retrieve the ball from the basket, the game of basketball came into existence. He never entertained the notion of patenting his new game because it was for recreational fun. “Basketball is just a game to play. It doesn’t need a coach… you don’t coach basketball, you just play it.” Despite his comment, in 1900 he became the basketball coach for the Jayhawks at the University of Kansas.

Between 1892 and 1894, formal rules were devised, an inflated leather, albeit occasionally lopsided, ball was invented, backboards were designed so fans could not reach over and deflect the shots, and iron hoops and hammock-style enclosed baskets were introduced to the game. It was another decade before open-ended nets were used. On January 18, 1896, the first “experimental” college basketball game was played between the University of Iowa and the University of Chicago. The final score: Chicago 15, Iowa 12.

The Ball

In the 1930s a flurry of patents were filed suggesting that the game was becoming a viably commercial sport. However, the ball is considered the most important piece of equipment. The original basketball was patented in 1929 (see U.S. Patent 1,718,305). It was made of leather on the outside and butyl rubber on the inside. Zinc and cooper plates imprinted the label onto the ball. Today, the Wilson Sports Good Company is maker of the official NCA basketball, the Solution. The company’s patented composite-leather technology absorbs moisture and the pebbled-triangle design creates for better ball handling (see U.S. Patent 4,570,931).

The game of basketball continues to evolve with technology enhancements such as breakaway rims, vision replay, and performance shoes. If only Dr. Naismith could have foreseen the future of his fun “athletic distraction.”


The Physics of Basketball (Engineering Library QC26 .F66 2006)

Two Guys From Barnum, Iowa and How They Helped Save Basketball: A History of U.S. Patent 4,534,556 by Francis B. Francois (2008)

Basketball STEM Project

America’s Story from America’s Library

The Coach’s Clipboard

Top 5: Early Basketball Patents


Come Celebrate Pi Day 3.14,1:59!


On March 14 at 1:59 pm we gather together to celebrate the most famous and mysterious of numbers.  That Pi is defined as the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter seems simple enough but Pi turns out to be an “irrational number.”  Computer scientists have calculated billions of digits of pi, starting with 3.14159265358979323…, no recognizable pattern emerges in the digits.  Scientists could continue calculating the next digit all the way to infinity and still have no idea which digit might emerge next.  To these facts can be added that March 14 is also Einstein’s birthday.

Pi is a number that has fascinated scholars for 4,000 years.  The mathematical history of pi comes from around the world.  In 1900 B.C., the Babylonians calculated the area of the circle by taking 3 times the square of its radius.  One Babylonian tablet (ca 1900-1680 B.C.) indicates a value of 3.125 for pi, which is a close approximation. Around 1650 B.C., the Rhind Papyrus, a famous document of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, also calculated the area of a circle which gave the approximate value of 3.1605.



In 250 B.C., the Greek mathematician Archimedes calculated the circumference of a circle to its  diameter.  Archimedes  value , was not only more accurate; it was the first theoretical rather than measured calculations of pi.  Archimedes knew that he had not found the value of pi but only an approximation. He used a fairy simply geometrical approach for his calculations.  See how he did it by launching the interactive model on this site:



Zu Chongzhi (429-501 AD?) was a Chinese mathematician and astronomer, who was not familiar with Archimedes method. He calculated the value of the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Unfortunately, his book has been lost so very little is known of his work.

In 1761, a Swiss mathematician Johann Heinrich Lambert (1782-1777) proved the irrationality of pi.  An irrational number is a number that cannot be made into a fraction where the decimal never ends or repeat sequences.

By 1882, F. Lindeman proved that pi was transcendental, that is, that pi is not the root of any algebraic equation with rational coefficients.  This discovery proved that you can’t “square the circle” which was a problem that vexed many mathematicians up to that time.  Another fascination for mathematicians throughout history was to calculate the digits of pi, but until computers, less than 1,000 digits had been calculated.  With the calculations of the computer, millions of digits have been calculated.


Adiran, Y. E. O.  The Pleasures of Pi, e and Other Interesting Numbers.  Singapore: World Scientific Pub., c2006.  Engineering Library QA95 .A2 2006

Alsina, Claudi.  Icons of Mathematics:  An Exploration of Twenty Key Images. Washington, D.C.:  Mathematical Association of America c2011.

Beckman, Petr.  The History of Pi. Boulder: Colorado: The Golem Press, 1977.  Main Math Collection QA484 .B4 1977

Chongzhi, Zu.  Encyclopedia Britannica.  Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2014.  Web, 10 March 2014.    Http:// / EBchecked/topic/1073884/Zu-Chongzhi.   Main Reference Collection AE5 .E363 2010

Exploratorium. (2014). Pi Day. Retrieved from

Gillings, R. Mathematics in the Time of the Pharaohs. Boston, MA: MIT Press, 89-103, 1972.  Main Math Collection QA27.E3 G52 

Gardner, Milo. “Rhind Papyrus.” From MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource, created by Eric W. Weisstein.

A facsimile of this papyrus can also be found at the
Main Oversize FOLIO PJ1681 R5 1927
Main Math Collection FOLIO PJ1681 R5 1927

Hobson, Ernest William.  Squaring the Circle and Other Monographs. New York: Chelsea, 1953.  Main Math Collection QA467 .H62 1953 

KHANACADEMY. (2014). A Song About A Circle Constant. Retrieved from

Libeskind, Shlomo.  Euclidean and Transformational Geometry: A Deductive Inquiry. Sudbury, Mass.:  Jones and Bartlett Publishers, c 2008. Engineering Library QA453 .L53 2008 

Mackenzie, D. “Fractions to Make an Egyptian Scribe Blanch.” Science 278, 224, 1997.

McCall, Martin W.  Classical Mechanics:  From Newton to Einstein: A Modern Introduction.  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010.  Engineering Library QC125.2 .M385 2011 

Robins, G. and Shute, C. The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus: An Ancient Egyptian Text. New York: Dover, 1990. Main Math Collection QA30.3 .R63 1987 

Weingardt, Richard.  Circles in The Sky:  The Life and Times of George Ferris.  Reston, VA,: American Society of Civil Engineers, C.2009.  Engineering Library TA140.F455 W45 2009


Pi Day : Pie, Trivia & Fun … Oh, My!

pi_web imageJoin the Lichtenberger Engineering Library and the People in Engineering LLC for an exciting afternoon of free pie and Pi(e) trivia.

The fun begins at 1:59 pm on 3.14 in the Seamans Center Student Commons.

Show off your knowledge of Pi(e). Form a team of four and pre-register for a trivia game at

Pi Day is open to all students, faculty, and staff. Be there or……. be square!

Alexander Graham Bell: The Man Behind the Telephone

alexander bellAlexander Graham Bell is known as an inventor, scientist, and engineering.  He is well-known for his invention of the telephone and was involved in many other inventions.

His invention of the telephone came from his desire to help the deaf hear and had done research into speech articulation following his father’s work.  The patent was issued on March 7, 1876.  The telephone itself is clouded with controversy of who invented it first and lead to a series of lawsuits.  This includes lawsuits with such people as an Italian inventor, Antonio Meucci.  The most famous conflict is with Elisha Gray , who visited the patent office the same day as Bell had submitted his patent application with a claim on a similar design.  Bell eventually came up on top in these cases and, with in a year of patenting, set up the Bell Telephone Company.

Bell demonstration


After the telephone, Bell went on to completely different experiments and inventions.  Many of these were related to the areas of medical science.  He worked extensively on creating a mechanical breathing apparatus, the predecessor of the iron lung. He had hope to save the lives of drowning victims and premature babies. Bell also conducted research into heavier-than-air flight and founded the Aerial Experiment Association.

Bell Breathing Machine

Bell sought to advance scientific knowledge and was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society.  He was the president from 1898 to 1903.

Learn More: 

  • Videos:
  • Books
    • Bell, Alexander Graham,. 1881. Proof from alexander graham bell’s own mouth: That he never contemplated a speaking telephone in his 1876 patent and that he never transmitted speech with any instrument mentioned in said patent, but on the contrary made a complete failure in every effort to do so. United States : s.n.  Law Electronic Resource.
    • Dickerson, E. N., James Jackson Storrow , Chauncey Smith , A. E. Dolbear, Telephone Company Molecular, Telephone Company Clay Commercial, Telephone Company American Bell, Telephone Company People’s, Overland Telephone Company of,New Jersey, and United States. 2007. The telephone appeals. Buffalo, NY: William S. Hein & Co. Law Electronic Resource.
    • Eber, Dorothy. 1982. Genius at work : Images of alexander graham bell. New York : Viking Press TK6143.B4 E23 Main Library.
    • Evenson, A. E. 2000. The telephone patent conspiracy of 1876 : The elisha gray-alexander bell controversy and its many players . Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland  TK6018.B4 E94 2000 Main Library.
    • Gray, Charlotte,. 2006. Reluctant genius : Alexander graham bell and the passion for invention / charlotte gray. Vol. 1st U.S. ed. New York : Arcade Pub. : Distributed by Hachette Book Group USA  TK6143.B4 G73 2006 Engineering Library.
    • Grosvenor, Edwin S., and Morgan Wesson . 1997. Alexander graham bell : The life and times of the man who invented the telephone. New York : Harry Abrams  FOLIO TK6143.B4 G76 1997 Main Oversize.
    • Schils, René. 2012. How james watt invented the copier: Forgotten inventions of our great scientists. New York, NY : Springer Science+Business Media, LLC Electronic Resource
    • Shulman, Seth. 2008. The telephone gambit : Chasing alexander graham bell’s secret / seth shulman. Vol. 1st ed. New York : W. W. Norton & Co.  TK6018.B4 S58 2008 Engineering Library.