Q&A: Foam finger, computer tennis calls

The foam finger

With all the fuss about Miley Cyrus' "performance" at the Video Music Awards, I wondered: Who invented the foam finger?

The idea of a giant hand with an extended index finger ("We're No. 1") apparently originated with Steve Chmelar, then a senior in high school who built a giant hand from hardware cloth and paper mache in 1971 to cheer on his basketball team in the state championship game. His team, Ottumwa (Iowa), lost that game to Davenport West, but a photo of Chmelar with his creation appeared in a Des Moines newspaper.

The finger really started taking shape in 1977. Geral Fauss, who was teaching industrial arts at a high school outside of Houston, made 400 masonite hands with the index finger extended to cheer on the school's football team in a district championship game, and sold them all.

He thought he had a product that would sell, according to a Sports Illustrated story in 1982, but he knew it needed to be lighter. He experimented with Styrofoam but it wouldn't stand up. He finally settled on polyurethane, formed the company Spirit Hand Novelties Inc., and began making products. In 1979 the company contracted with stores in New Orleans to sell Penn State and Alabama foam fingers for the Sugar Bowl. The fingers sold out, Fauss' product got national exposure and sales took off.

The company's name is now Spirit Industries Inc., headquartered in Montgomery, Texas, and makes all sorts of products, mostly made of the foam. Its website is www.spiritindustries.net.

Meanwhile Chmelar, now 59 and a vice president of commercial sales at a construction supply company in Ottumwa, was tracked down by reporters after the Cyrus performance Aug. 25 and asked for a reaction. "I would say that it certainly misrepresented its intent to encourage team support," Chmelar said.

10 views of the ball

In tennis coverage on TV, there is often a computerized view of the ball and where it landed on the court. Is this an official tool used by the judges? How does it work?

The computerized line-calling system, Hawk-Eye, uses 10 cameras per court to record the flight of the ball at tennis tournaments. The system uses that input to map the ball's trajectory and reconstruct its path, projecting where the ball most likely would have landed. Creator Paul Hawkins says the system is 99.9 percent accurate.

Players receive three challenges each set, and if used, Hawk-Eye determines whether the ball was in or out, sometimes overruling umpires and line judges. The system, which is approved by the International Tennis Federation, is used at the Australian Open (hard court), Wimbledon (grass court) and the U.S. Open (hard court), among other tournaments, but not at the French Open, which has a clay surface that shows ball marks.

Compiled from Times and wire reports. To submit a question, email answers@tampabay.com.

Q&A: Foam finger, computer tennis calls 09/05/13 [Last modified: Thursday, September 5, 2013 1:55pm]

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