The spinning top is one of the oldest toys in human history. The first people to invent the top is unknown, as similar toys have emerged in cultures across the world (the Japanese "koma," and the Jewish "dreidl," for instance). The culture with the longest recorded history of top-spinning, however, is China.
The spinning top in China is almost as old as the civilization itself. In 1926, a top found in Shanxi Province was believed to be over 4,000 years old. Known as "Tsa Lin," early tops were made of a variety of easily acquired materials: wood, nuts, bamboo and stone. Later, a length of cord known as a "whip" began to be used, which is still the common practice in China today. The whip was wound around the top, then unfurled, to increase the toy’s speed and momentum. As time passed, top-spinning developed into a popular children’s game, and eventually, a competitive sport.
By the 1700s, Chinese tops began to appear in Europe, fueled by the popularity of a Chinese game called “ko-en-gen.” Renamed “diabolo,” the game involved the spinning of a specialized, two-headed top into the air and catching it on a string. It soon became one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite hobbies. In English town squares, over-sized tops became common fixtures, used by villagers for exercise and for keeping warm in the winter.
The United States
By the end of the 18th century, tops began to cross the Atlantic and became popular in the newly independent United States. The top was one of the first toys to receive a U.S. patent and spawned a multitude of new varieties in the years to come: the plunger top, tops that did flips, and later tops that produced light and sound as they spun. In the 1990s, the Doodle Top was invented, which is a top with a marker attached that produces shapes on paper as it spins.
China Today: No Mere Toy
Perhaps nowhere has the spinning top remained as popular as in China, for children and adults alike. Children’s tops are small and brightly colored affairs, but the tops used for competitive play are significantly larger. Sport tops usually weigh about a pound (0.45 kilograms), and require a whip over 6.5 feet (2 meters) long. Some competitions feature tops that weigh upwards of 100 pounds. The largest top in the world, which can be found in China, weighs about 617 pounds (280 kg).
Competitive top-spinning in China is known as "Da Tuoluo." Competitions feature a variety of games. In one game, Battling Tops, opponents attempt to knock each others’ tops over. In another game, competitors must keep their top spinning over a series of obstacles. The player whose top spins the longest wins.