One mile north of the ancient town of Sandwich in Kent the traveler passes, and can hardly fail to notice, an undistinguished small factory with a sign outside reading REINFORCED SHUTTLECOCKS LIMITED.
The company was formed in 1932. It had developed a new process, the strengthening of the fragile badminton quill by encasing it in a small tube. It was expected that these "Bluebird" shuttlecocks would from then on last considerably longer than the accustomed 40 minutes playing time. But within a few months of the naming of the concern, the installation of machinery and the hiring of hands, it was found that shuttlecock reinforcement just did not work out, so management and staff alike set to with a will to excel at the production of regular shuttlecocks. Reinforced Shuttlecocks Limited is now the world's biggest manufacturer of unreinforced shuttlecocks, indeed of shuttlecocks of any kind.
Badminton is a booming sport (it is estimated that there are 100 times the players that there were in 1939). There is, however, one snag, namely the shortage of suitable geese. The best geese come from Middle Europe and from Italy's Po Valley. Several million geese a year are needed to yield the necessary 50 tons of feathers, but many good quills fail to reach the market because Central European peasants find a goose wing a handy duster.
The International Badminton Federation in 1952 authorized the use of a plastic shuttle, but man has yet to come up with any substance to rival the tremendous resilience and power of recovery of the feather. Highspeed photographs of the moment of impact show how the feathers spread, reverse and reconstitute in time for flight.
Weights also have to be considered, for weight governs speed. The shuttlecock used in tournaments when struck by a player of average strength with a full underhand stroke from one end of the court will fall between 12 and 30 inches short of the other end. A match is played with one of the 13 available speeds, ranging from 73 (very slow, suitable for very warm and dry conditions in small rooms) to 85 (the fastest, useful in extreme cold, and in large lofty courts). The numbers actually denote the weight of the shuttle in grains.
Since 1936 the firm has also had a factory in Altoona, Pa. It sells only through retail channels. Anyone can have a choice of a multitude of shuttlecocks, ranging from the RSL No. 1 Tourney at $13.50 a dozen down to the RSL Eagle, the least expensive of nonplastic shuttlecocks, which costs $7.50 a dozen.