By the standards of nearly any tabletop game, air hockey is a relatively new pastime, with a history dating back no further than the 1970s. The first air hockey table was created by Bob Lemieux, an employee at the Brunswick Billiards Co. in 1972. The game was practically an overnight success in the United States, and eventually spread to Europe, Latin America, the Far East and elsewhere throughout the world.
An avid hockey fan, Lemieux is credited with creating the now familiar round hand-held table mallets which are used to strike the dense round puck used in air hockey. In the US and Canada, the game was hugely popular throughout the 1970s, and other manufacturers soon began constructing their own air hockey tables to cash in on the success of the trend.
Because of its immense popularity, air hockey tournaments soon began to be organised, and the United States Air Table Hockey Association (USAA) was founded in 1978 by J. Philip Arnold. The new organisation's primary mission was to oversee tournaments in major American and Canadian cities, and standardise the competitive rules of the sport.
The creation of the USAA legitimised air hockey for the first time as an actual sport, and led to regional and national Even the air hockey pucks have been standardised by the USAA. Approved tournament pucks are made of dense yellow lexan, and contain no other images or text. A thin piece of white tape, however, is allowed to be placed on the face side of the puck for convenience.
Despite air hockey's immense popularity in the 1970s, by the early 1980s the game had serious competition from video games, which were just beginning to take off. Gradually, the popularity of air hockey declined as more arcades began switching over to smaller -- and more profitable -- tabletop video games such as Asteroids and Pac Man.
By 1986, however, air hockey was slowly making a comeback. New air hockey table construction methods and surface materials quickened the pace of the game, reclaiming much of the audience air hockey had lost at the onset of the video game era.
By the 1990s, new air hockey championships had been established in Europe and Russia. With the newly designed tables and mallets, champion players were now able to reach speeds of 80 mph or more, creating intense excitement around the sport.
Today, the world air hockey community is a more competitive than ever, and the prises for national championships -- especially in the United States -- have risen to hundreds of thousands of dollars, transforming air hockey in two a modern, commercial sport.
Air hockey has also become a "pub favourite" in taverns around the world. Requiring less space than billiard tables, air hockey tables are convenient and attract interest where ever they are set up. Nowadays, four player air hockey tables are also gaining popularity, though they are not yet sanctioned by the USAA for competitive play.
Because it is such a new pastime, the history of air hockey will be largely be written by the players and competitors of today; who knows what innovations the future will bring to this exciting new sport?