The First Pitching Machine
IF YOU WANTED TO BUILD A BASEBALL PITCHING MACHINE and had never seen one, how would you do it? By analogy, you would probably use some sort of mechanical arm. If that didn’t work, you might try a sharp impact with a piston, or perhaps some sort of slingshot. But when Charles Hinton, a mathematics instructor at Princeton University in the mid-1890s, saw his school’s pitchers getting sore arms from throwing too much batting practice, he came up with a more imaginative solution.
First Hinton tried a catapult, which, as he wrote in 1897, “failed altogether in point of accuracy of aim” and was incapable of throwing a curve. Then “it occurred to me that practically whenever men wished to impel a ball with velocity and precision, they drove it out of a tube with powder.” With this realization, he devised a machine that was even scarier to face than Pedro Martinez is today.
Hinton assembled a breechloading smoothbore cannon whose breech could be expanded or contracted, like a telescope, to regulate the speed of the pitch. To operate it, the user pulled the trigger on a rifle loaded with blanks. Hot gases from the rifle passed through a thin tube into the cannon, out of which they propelled the ball. (Hinton chose this two-stage method instead of creating an explosion within the pitching gun’s breech because “the powder impinging directly on the ball tended to destroy it” and “the most absolute accuracy in loading and uniformity in wadding” were necessary to get a useful pitch.) A spring-operated safety valve prevented the gases from creating too high a pressure. One version of the gun could be fired from the shoulder; another was mounted on a platform.
Hinton’s prototype pitching cannon threw “a good strong ball of no great divergence up and down.” The next step was to teach it to throw curveballs. A lot of trial and error went into this. First he tried placing small studs on one side of the barrel to create a sort of crude asymmetrical rifling that would, he hoped, provide the desired spin. Instead of curves, this resulted in straight but wild pitches.
Then he tried winding a ribbon around the ball, with the ribbon meant to impart spin as the ball unwound from it. The ribbon did create spin, but it took away so much velocity that the ball wouldn’t reach home plate. Finally Hinton asked himself: How does a pitcher throw a curve? With his fingers, of course. So he “resolved to copy the pitcher.”
He accomplished this by attaching a pair of rubber-coated iron blades that projected forward from the cannon’s muzzle. Bending them produced more of a curve, though the results must have been inconsistent. Every pitcher knows that the movement you get on a pitch depends on where along the seam you grip the ball, and this would have been very hard to control precisely using a cannon.
Princeton’s baseball team used the gun in batting practice but immediately ran into a problem: People don’t like to get shot at, even with a baseball. Hinton expected that his gun would be popular because of “the deeply implanted love of shooting which exists in every boy,” but there was no corresponding love of receiving fire. He responded by letting the batter control the gun himself, using a button he could depress with his foot.
Hinton’s mechanical pitcher had its first public demonstration on December 15, 1896, in Princeton’s gymnasium. In the spring of 1897, when the Boston Beaneaters (forerunners of the Braves) came to Princeton to play an exhibition game against the varsity, Boston’s manager, Frank Selee, was quoted as endorsing the machine (“when perfected, the gun can be used to advantage early in the season, before the pitchers’ arms are strong”). He did not, however, let his players bat against it.
On June 10, before a crowd that included Mrs. Grover Cleveland, the machine pitched for both sides in a threeinning intramural game between Ivy Club and Tiger Inn, two Princeton eating clubs. It struck out eight batters, walked one, and allowed four hits. According to an account of the game, “There is but one serious defect in the operation of the machine and that is the long time required for reloading. The frequent delays did not allow a full nine-inning game to be played.”
The Princeton team continued to use the pitching gun, and over the next few years it was written up in Scientific American and other publications. The high point came on August 13, 1900, in Memphis, Tennessee. Before a crowd of more than 1,000, it pitched to both sides in a Southern Association game between the hometown Chickasaws and the Nashville Volunteers. The gun struck out the first two batters and gave up no runs in two innings, with only one ball hit out of the infield.
All to no avail. In 1907, when Hinton died at the age of 54, an admirer recalled that the gun “was subsequently discarded on account of the fear it inspired in the batter.” Popular Mechanics later wrote that “the average batter would step on [the foot control] and then jump back about 4 ft., letting the ball go by.” The magazine also noted that the hot rifle gases baked baseballs until they were “as hard as bricks.”
Hinton was the son of James Hinton, an English surgeon and philosopher whose works were a major influence on the psychologist Havelock Ellis. Charles was a mathematical prodigy who graduated from Oxford and in 1880, while teaching at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, published the first major work on the fourth dimension. Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll, had a copy of this book in his library. In numerous works exploring the fourth dimension, Hinton coined the word tesseract , meaning the four-dimensional counterpart of a cube, and he invented the representation of an unfolded tesseract that later appeared in Salvador Dali’s painting Christus Hypercubus . He speculated that the fourth dimension might explain God, ghosts, and the afterlife, and his works remain popular today among devotees of the paranormal.
He also wrote a number of “scientific romances,” an early form of science fiction. (To show his topological versatility, some of them were set in a two-dimensional world called Astria.) These, too, retain a following. Of one 1886 Hinton story, Professor Bruce Clarke of Texas Tech writes: “The self-exegesis of ‘The Persian King’ ends by conflating Hegelian sublation with the Schopenhauerian transumption of the material universe by an absolute will… . [and] outlines a dialectical approach to creative selfhood that anticipates modernist aesthetic manifestoes….”
Along the way Hinton married a daughter of the logician George Boole. Unfortunately, having failed to grasp the concept of an either/ or proposition, he was convicted of bigamy and fled England for Japan in 1886 after serving a brief prison term. In 1893 he arrived at Princeton, from which he was dismissed shortly after introducing the mechanical pitcher. He went on to jobs at the University of Minnesota, the U.S. Naval Observatory, and, starting in 1902, the U.S. Patent Office. He was employed at the Patent Office as an examiner when he died suddenly while delivering a banquet toast to “female philosophers.”
Despite the failure of Hinton’s mechanical pitcher, inventors continued to pursue the idea. In 1908 a patent was issued on a “mechanical ball-thrower” and a similar device was described in Baseball magazine. Both machines used air-powered guns; neither proved practical. Later decades saw unsuccessful attempts to create pitching machines using springs and even a trip hammer. In 1938 a pitching machine developed by the St. Louis banker Byron Moser, which used what amounted to a giant rubber band, was demonstrated before a Cardinals game.
Pitching machines that relied on mechanical arms started appearing during World War II. The first commercially successful mass-produced machine was the Iron Mike, whose prototype was built by Paul Giovagnoli in 1952. He ran a golf driving range near Topeka, Kansas, and wanted to add a batting cage, and when he could not find a satisfactory pitching machine, he built his own. Giovagnoli continued to improve his design and sold it to a manufacturer before eventually opening his own company. It took until the late 1960s for a pitching machine to once again throw curveballs, with the Curvemaster, invented by J. C. Kester.
Today buyers can choose from pitching machines that use wheels, mechanical arms, or compressed air. Some simulate the underhand delivery of a softball pitcher. An advanced machine called Abner can throw any kind of pitch, even a knuckleball, at any speed. Reality is simulated with a video projection of a pitcher winding up, and the ball is released through a flap where the pitcher’s hand would be—a high-tech method of avoiding Hinton’s problem with gun-shy batters.