At first glance, bowling equipment seems like an easy exercise for designers. Engineers make a round ball that weighs 14-16 lbs, build a lane or path that the ball can roll on and knock down 10 pins at the end of the lane. The participants of the sport wear funny shoes and shirts and call themselves bowlers. You’d think at first that the engineering must be in just the pin resetter and ball return devices, right? Well, think again.
The engineering that goes into the sport of bowling is now so technologically advanced that an engineering degree is required to advance the sport. The true art of bowling is to hit a one-inch wide pocket that is 60 feet away. This tiny pocket is just off the center of the front pin and can be very elusive. When the ball hits the target, known also as a strike, the ball ricochets through the pins and knocks every one down. If you have ever watched bowlers in a bowling alley or on TV you’ve probably said to yourself, “I can do that.” Bowling looks easy.
Today, engineers have figured out how to create a ball that can smash into a larger two to four inch pocket to achieve the same results because ball manufacturers have built a hook into the design. The standard pocket width for a ball rolling straight down the lane is only one inch. However, if you can hook the ball at an angle of at least 6 degrees when the ball enters the pocket, the size of the pocket jumps from 1 inch to 2 or 3 inches. Because of this enlarged pocket, the number of perfect games increased from 829 in 1964 to almost 40,000 per year since 2007.Bowling is one of those sports where every throw is unique. Every throw is unique because bowling alleys apply mineral oil on the lanes (most commonly made of pine, cherry wood, or a synthetic laminate) to condition them to take a continual pounding. The amount of oil on the lane, the type of oil, the lane material, the temperature, the humidity and the type of bowling ball makes the outcome of every throw unpredictable. The amount of oil close to the pins is different from the amount of oil closer to the bowler. Like-wise, the amount of oil on the outside of the lane is less than on the inside. No two bowling lanes have the same amount of oil because some alleys use different grades of oils, and some lane oiling machines disperse the oil differently on the lane.
Bowling ball engineers also change the shape and density of the core of the ball so that it can gyrate (spin on its axis) and hook more or less. Some cores are shaped like bells, some have unusual patterns and other may have spheres or ellipses. The composition of the inside of the ball can allow it go slower or faster. The outer surface or coating a designer puts on the ball can give it more grip on the lane or allow it to slide through the lane oil.
On a typical day, when a player throws a hook, the ball is released with a counter-clockwise rotation and first travels in a straight line as it slides through the oil. A few feet from the pins, when it exits the oil, the friction from the lane causes it to grip the lane and hook into the pins.
Celeste Baine is the author of “Is There an Engineer Inside You?: A Comprehensive Guide to Career Decisions in Engineering“.