On The Mat : the origins of modern tiddlywinks 1954-57

The Thesis

Although the C.U.Tw.C. was having difficulty in finding opponents it was far from idle. The founders were a band of adventurers setting out on an eccentric crusade which promised to be fun; yet it was in an earnest spirit of enquiry that these immortals designed a comprehensive programme of experimentation, whose results were to be published in a thesis in the summer. This programme was "an attempt to determine the mechanics of this sport. Thereby it is hoped to gain a knowledge of the factors which affect the play of the game, and thus to eradicate, if possible, random factors for which the player is not capable of allowing, and so to prove that the game is essentially one of dexterity and skill."

To this laudable end, discussions and experiments formed a major activity of the Club. Apart from the normal meetings in the Lent and summer terms, a series of extra meetings was held.

First the Club listed the five variable factors of the game:

  • the type of mat
  • the tiddlywink
  • the squidger
  • the player
  • the atmosphere (physical and mental)
"These above divisions are a complete analysis of the game and as such formed a convenient division for research purposes." They dealt with each variable individually, in a series of controlled experiments.

For research into the first variable, the playing surface, a select committee of the C.U.Tw.C. flicked through the many varieties of carpet material in Eaden Lilley's carpet shop in Cambridge, to establish the optimum playing surface. It was immediately evident that pileless carpets (e.g. felts and needlelooms) gave a player the best control. On February 27th Steen wrote to Peter Shepherd & Co., of Reading, saying their Berkshire needleloom carpeting had been carefully tested and had been proved the best surface. The Company replied on March 1st: "We felt that in view of the amount of reseacrh which has been given to the matter we will supply you with four lengths of carpeting." These mats served the Club in many of their early matches.

Winks and squidgers were the second and third variables to be studied. "Our search for tiddlywinks and squidgers took us clambering up into cold attics to hunt in cobwebbed tea-chests full of childhood pleasures, and trotting down the stairs to the basement of Gray's of Cambridge to retrieve a sack full of apparently useless counters." The Club found a remarkable variety of winks, differing in diameter, thickness, "and the shape of their faces". For experimental purposes they were classified as small, medium or large winks. The performances of each size of wink in different shots was established, and the effects of different shapes of counter were examined.

With squidgers, the main point at issue was whether or not a round squidger performed better than a square one (the end of a one-foot ruler served as the square squidger). It was found that for a reasonably practiced player neither had any distinct advantage.

The fourth variable in the game is the player. The four basic shots of tiddlywinks were analysed in detail, the shots being dubbed the long drive, the approach shot, the short putt, and the cover-up shot; were there perhaps golfers in the Club? Among the intriguing experiments were some devised to discover why and how a wink spins or rolls. "The Club members spent many weary hours lying on the floor watching the spin on tiddlywinks which had been flicked from various materials in various ways", says the Thesis. In another enterprising experiment "several tiddlywinks were squidged out of an upstairs window, the drop being of the order of 20 feet. The spin was carefully observed on the way down. The only result which was noticed was that the rate of spin increased with increased speed of the wink, but the axis appeared to remain constant. The conclusion to this has not been worked out yet."

Even the effect of the physical atmosphere on the game was subjected to close examination. Atmospheric density, humidity, temperature, draughts, and the aerodynamic effect on the trajectory of the wink, received as scientific an analysis as was possible.

Finally, certain psychological elements of tiddlywinks came under review. These the Club divided into three types- wine, women, and song. After referring the reader, under "wine", to the non-existent Test 7 in the Appendix, the Thesis carefully avoided giving any results of the tests into the effect of women on male winkers! A few paragraphs on the implications of song and other aural distractions rounded off the section on the mental atmosphere. As the Club declared, "the mental atmosphere is half the game".

This busy programme of scientific research continued from the Lent term through the summer term, and into the long vacation. At the Annual General Meeting on June 9th (at which Martin became the new President and Howells took his place as Secretary), Bill Steen said "that certain members of the Club were writing chapters towards the thesis on the game of tiddlywinks, and it was hoped to have it finished by the end of the summer vacation." The Minutes continue, "A discussion followed and it was decided to have a number of copies typed and distributed as follows:

  • One to each of the present members of the Club
  • One official Club copy
  • One copy to Peter Shepherd
  • One copy to Marchant Games Co
  • Copies to the lecturers in the Statistical & Physics Departments of the University.
What the Statistics and Physics lecturers subsequently thought of the Thesis is not recorded!

The long vacation did indeed see the completion of the Thesis. The last of the material was written up, and stencils were distributed among members for sharing the typing; one of the many charms of the Thesis is the transition from one typeface to another. There is an undated item headed 'Thesis' in the Cambridge files, which sets out in detail the cost of producing copies: altogether the stencils and duplicating paper cost £1-13-3, and postage came to 3/4.

The Thesis was ready by early October. Included among the opening remarks was a quotation from the erudite Phoenix Dictionary of Games: "To scorn tiddlywinks because it is played by children is to refuse milk because it is the food of babies." (The editor of the Dictionary, John Pick, became a Life Member of the English Tiddlywinks Association in the autumn of 1964).

Production of the Thesis far exceeded the brief distribution list mooted at the A.G.M. in June. In the search of publishers and publicity copies of the Thesis were sent to (among others) Illustrated, Titbits, Weekend Mail, Hutchinson, and the Daily Express. None of these would publish. Halfway through the Michaelmas term the Thesis was placed in the hands of Robert Sommerville, literary, dramatic and film agent; he replied in mirror-writing, but nothing more came of it.

The Thesis was a great milestone in the history of tiddlywinks, and has became a hallowed classic. Nine years elapsed before the appearance of any other widely published investigations into the optimum properties of the game's equipment: these were the articles in The Winking World by Aeacus and Phil Villar in October 1964 and March 1965.

[Ed: in my opinion The Thesis is actually not very interesting, and so I don't recommend reading it]

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