The History of Artificial Grass
There’s no doubt that since its initial appearance, over fifty years ago, artificial grass has proved itself to be a huge success.
Sports teams and fans; people living in dry, arid areas, or areas prone to seasonal hose pipe bans; pet owners; people short of the time and/or the inclination to put both effort and money into the job of cultivating the perfect lawn; all those and more have benefited from this ever-evolving invention.
We might be so used to seeing synthetic turf now that we take it for granted, but where did it all begin?
The Ford Foundation
Unlikely as it may seem, it was Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, and his son, Edsel, who set the ball rolling.
In 1936, Henry Ford and Edsel Ford jointly established the Ford Foundation, with the aim of advancing public welfare in terms of scientific, educational and charitable initiatives.
Amongst other organisations the Ford Foundation established and supported were the Henry Ford Hospital, and the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village. While both Edsel Ford and then Henry Ford died in the 1940s, the work of the foundation they established continues to this day.
In the early 1960s it was observed by the Ford Foundation that people who lived in rural locations were fitter and stronger than those who dwelt in urban areas.
It was believed that one reason for this – and a significant one – was the nature of the surfaces children had to play on. In urban areas these tended to be hard surfaces, such as asphalt and concrete.
Even where there was earth, it was inclined to be compacted and free from grass, a world away from the grassy fields and meadows where rural children could run and play.
The desire to replicate the benefits of a rural space in an urban area drove the Ford Foundation to contact The Chemstrand Company, a subsidiary of Monsanto, with the aim of developing an ideal surface to encourage urban youngsters to play outdoor sports.
Putting Together the Research and Development Team
The Creative Products Group, Monsanto’s research and development division, was tasked with creating the new playing surface.
The team was led by Chemstrand’s head of research, David Chaney. He had previously – while working for American Viscose during World War 2 – helped develop nylon for parachute cords, and had more recently been involved in creating synthetic fibres to be used in the manufacture of carpets and sweaters.
Chaney had been instrumental in taking Chemstrand’s research centre to Research Triangle Park (RTP), in 1960, and the Chemstrand team worked alongside staff from RTP. (RTP is a high tech research and development facility that was established in 1959 and which is still in operation today.)
The Technology Comes Together
It seems that the desire to create artificial grass was the right idea at the right time. Around a decade earlier the carpet tufting process, which had been around in one form or another since the late eighteenth century, had been perfected and mechanised.
This process allows fibres to be inserted into a stretch of backing fabric, after which an adhesive is applied in order to bind the tufts of fibre to the backing. Due to the nature and usage of carpet the adhesive needed to be flexible, and both polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride fitted the bill.
The tufting process is now used in the manufacture of by far the majority of residential and commercial carpets.
The Chemstrand Company was already experimenting with the development of new synthetic fibres to be used in tufted carpets, and this proved to be a good starting point when it came to developing the new outdoor surface.
Some of the characteristics the artificial turf needed to have were the same as those needed for carpets – for example, traction underfoot, durability, flammability and cushioning. Others were new and had to be designed in – for example, the ability for water to drain away through the surface.
The product the research and development team created was called ‘ChemGrass’, and in 1964 it was installed at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. This was the first ever large-scale installation of synthetic turf.
Houston, We Have a Problem!
The following year, 1965, Judge Roy Hofheinz built the Astrodome, a state-of-the-art indoor multi-purpose domed sports arena, in Houston, Texas. It’s said he took his inspiration to build a roofed stadium from the Colosseum, when he learned on a visit to Rome that the ancient building had once boasted a ‘velarium’ – a retractable awning that could be used to shield spectators from the heat of the sun, and which also acted as a ventilation system, creating an updraft that caused a welcome breeze to help cool people down.
As for the Astrodome, the stadium was the first of its kind, and when it opened it was dubbed ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’.
Despite its many advantages, the one thing it proved impossible to do at the Astrodome was to maintain a real grass playing surface – even though the grass that had been laid was especially bred for indoor use.
There were two main reasons for this: the first was the hard usage the grass was subject to, and the second was that the domed roof of the stadium, while being made of semi-transparent glass to allow light in, had been painted white to prevent the glare that had been affecting the sportsmen’s performance.
This combination of factors made it impossible to maintain a healthy grass pitch and by mid-season it had given up the ghost.
For the second half of the season games were played on dead grass and bare earth that had been painted green – a miserable experience and a situation that could not be allowed to continue.
Having heard of the artificial turf that had been laid at Moses Brown School, Hofheinz consulted Monsanto with a view to having ChemGrass installed at the Astrodome.
A deal was readily struck, but the supply of ChemGrass was limited, and so for the first half of the 1966 season only the inner field was covered.
The entire field was covered in time for the second half of the season, making the Astrodome the first stadium in the world to have a full artificial grass pitch.
This caught the attention of the press and ChemGrass was widely written about, meaning it became much better known. It was the kind of publicity money couldn’t buy.
What’s in a Name?
The Astrodome was so named as it was home to the Major League Baseball (MLB) team the Houston Astros.
It was renowned for ‘firsts’; as well as being the first purpose-built indoor multi-purpose domed sports arena, it also boasted the first ever animated scoreboard, known as the ‘Astrolite’.
Knowing that, it’s probably no surprise that the synthetic grass that was laid and made famous there was rebranded as ‘AstroTurf’, to leverage the publicity.
It’s said that between innings groundskeepers dressed as astronauts kept the grass clean using vacuum cleaners. That must have been quite a spectacle!
Following the success of the synthetic turf at the Astrodome, it began to be adopted by other sports stadiums, initially in the US and Canada.
It was installed not only in indoor arenas, but also on outdoor grounds. The first outdoor stadium installation was at Indiana State University’s Memorial Stadium in Terre Haute in 1967.
At first artificial turf was used more or less exclusively in sports fields and arenas. It was inevitable, however, due to the benefits it offered, that it would make its way into the domestic market.
The attraction of a lawn that takes no watering or trimming, is pet-friendly and hard wearing, and can be kept in good shape with a minimum of effort, appeals to many people.
Add to that the chance to have a full, green lawn even in areas situated in full shade, and to cover up unsightly concrete or patios that are past their best, and it’s not surprising it became an attractive option.
It took a couple of decades to begin to be widely adopted, and undoubtedly advances in technology helped, as the grass began to look less artificial and more like natural turf, but now we accept artificial grass as quite normal – both outdoors and indoors.
Some homes and businesses have laid grass ‘carpets’ as a novel alternative floor covering and, no doubt, a talking point. As it’s so easy to care for, the maintenance isn’t an issue.
How is Artificial Grass Made?
The process of making artificial grass is actually quite straightforward: there are three main components and three main stages of production.
The components are synthetic yarn, backing and glue. The stages are:
Stage 1: Tufting – spools of synthetic yarn and rolls of backing are fed into a machine that uses a series of needles to insert loops of yarn into the backing fabric – these loops, or tufts, will become the blades of grass.
Stage 2: Bonding – a coating of glue is applied to the underside of the backing, to fix the synthetic tufts in place; this then has to be allowed to dry, generally in a special oven.
Stage 3: Perforation – the artificial grass needs to be perforated in order to allow rain water to drain away.
Once all these processes have been carried out, the synthetic turf can be rolled onto spools ready to go out to customers.
Of course this is a very much simplified explanation and doesn’t take into account the manufacture of the component parts, the design of the machinery used, the science and technology that goes into constantly improving the product, and the rigorous testing and safety standards that must be adhered to – but it does give you an insight into the process.
How has the Technology Progressed Over the Years?
The current varieties of artificial turf that are on the market are unrecognisable, in terms of comfort, appearance and durability, to those earlier versions. Let’s take a look at how things have progressed.
First Generation Turf
The first artificial turf, in the 1960s, was made with nylon yarn. The pile was short – 12–15mm – and dense, and there was no infill added.
This early turf was really just green nylon outdoor carpet – it was clear it wasn’t natural grass – and the surface could become very hot and uncomfortable for athletes to play on.
Traction underfoot was also an issue, and Monsanto’s research and development team came up with a solution that both resolved that problem and addressed concerns over the direction in which the pile lay: they crimped the nylon yarn after extrusion.
This texturisation made the surface of the grass less slippy and also caused the pile to take on a more uniform appearance and direction.
Second Generation Turf
In the 1970s a longer pile was introduced to artificial turf, typically measuring 20–25mm. A sand infill was used to keep the pile upright.
A common complaint was that should someone perform (for example) a sliding tackle, the sand could abrade skin, which was painful. On the plus side, however, it did help to dissipate some of the heat that could build up in the fibres.
At this time artificial grass also began to make its way into Europe. Polypropylene was introduced as an alternative to nylon – it had the benefit of being cheaper, but was less hardwearing.
Third Generation Turf
Towards the end of the 1990s further advances were made. Pile grew even longer, reaching 50–70mm, and as an alternative to a sand infill, rubber crumb infill was introduced. This proved more comfortable for sportspeople. Colour and texture also improved, and artificial grass began to look even more like the real thing. This period saw a boom in the use of synthetic grass in residential and commercial settings.
Further Development of Pioneering New Technologies
The world of artificial grass has certainly not stood still. Pioneering new technologies, such as Instant Recovery, Feelgood and Natural Look, and the introduction of curled brown fibres into the mix, have made synthetic turf more enjoyable and realistic looking than ever.
Instant Recovery Technology
If you put something large and/or heavy on natural grass, the surface it rests on will be damaged. Depending on how long the object stays there, the grass will either wither and die or simply be crushed. Crushed grass – whether real or fake – has traditionally been difficult to get to bounce back up again.
There will be times when putting something heavy on your lawn is unavoidable – whether it’s a paddling pool for the kids to play in on a hot day or garden furniture for the guests at your summer BBQ to use – but you don’t want it to ruin the turf. That’s where our Instant Recovery technology comes in.
Artificial grass with this technology is made from nylon, which is up to 40 per cent more resilient and 33 per cent stronger than other fibres. This means that, pretty much no matter what you do to it, your artificial turf will spring back into shape.
One issue with synthetic fibres is their ability to soak up heat from the sun’s rays. This can make a fake lawn uncomfortable to walk or sit on, and right at the time that you most want to be outdoors enjoying it. Grass with our innovative Feelgood technology reflects and dissipates the heat into the atmosphere; it’s scientifically proven to be up to 12 per cent cooler to the touch than artificial grass without the technology.
Natural Look Technology
Just like people being photographed, a lot of artificial grass lawns have a good side and a bad side. The reason for this is that synthetic fibres have a smooth surface, which makes them reflective. As they reflect light they can cause glare, and it’s this that can make the grass look different depending on the angle you are viewing it from.
In the case of grass with Natural Look Technology, the fibres have a roughened surface. This isn’t something that you’ll notice – it’s only visible at a microscopic level – but it does cut down on the reflective properties and so reduce glare. The result is grass that looks good from any angle.
How It All Adds Up
Not only are contemporary artificial lawns hard to distinguish from natural grass lawns, they are unrecognisable from those early versions. As well as looking good, you can expect them to feel realistic underfoot, with the exception that, depending upon the heat of the day, the surface might not be quite as cool as real grass.
Controversy Over the Safety of Artificial Grass
We’ve already mentioned the issues suffered by sportspeople with regard to the heat retained by the nylon fibres and the abrasive effect of the sand infill used in artificial turf in sports fields and courts. There was further controversy relating to the rubber crumb infill, specifically when it was made from recycled car tyres that could carry traces of heavy metals and other pollutants.
It’s fair to say that in recent years both production methods and safety standards have moved on, and modern artificial lawns laid with turf produced within the EU are quite safe for people and pets to use. (It’s wise to be wary of cheap grass manufactured in China, however, as the stringent safety standards adhered to in the EU aren’t adhered to there.)
The Demand Continues to Grow
Artificial turf continues to be popular in sports fields and arenas. In 2012, in excess of ten thousand artificial grass playing surfaces were reported to be in place in professional sports grounds, schools, colleges, and parks throughout Europe.
The fastest growing segment of the synthetic turf market is artificial grass for residential, landscaping and recreational use, the latter including golf courses, parks and tourist attractions. In Europe in 2012, more than four million square metres of synthetic grass was installed for these purposes.
Fun Facts About the Story of Synthetic Grass
- The Astrodome, reputedly inspired by the Colosseum, was known as The Eighth Wonder of the World.
- Don’t forget those astronaut groundskeepers – how brilliant were they!
- Between February and March 1970 Elvis Presley put on six shows at the Astrodome and set a new attendance record, having entertained 200,000 people during the series of shows. A further performance by the King on March 3, 1974, resulted in him setting a new single day attendance record.
- On August 31, 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, up to 25,000 evacuees from New Orleans moved into the Astrodome and were kept safe there until they could return home.
- On 9 April 2015 the Astrodome celebrated its 50th
- The Texas Historical Commission designated the Astrodome as a State Antiquities Landmark on January 27, 2017.
AstroTurf (and beyond)
- While the term ‘AstroTurf’ is widely used to refer to artificial grass (in the same way as vacuum cleaners are commonly called Hoovers) it is a trademark; the AstroTurf trademark is still registered worldwide, although it is no longer owned by Monsanto.
- None of AstroTurf’s contemporary competitors from the Sixties and Seventies are still in business.
- The practice of presenting false information as if it comes from a real grassroots supporter or movement, with the purpose of influencing opinion, is known as ‘astroturfing’. Many countries – including the UK – have legislation that prohibits the practice, and those who break the law may be fined or go to prison.
- Artificial turf can contain between 20,000 and 30,000 tufts per square metre.
- Artificial turf installed at airports can contain LED strands so that runway markings can be easily displayed.
Timeline – Key Dates in the Development of Artificial Grass
- 1936: Henry Ford and Edsel Ford establish the Ford Foundation with the aim of advancing public welfare in terms of scientific, educational and charitable initiatives.
- Early 1950s: the tufting process, essential to the manufacture of artificial grass, is mechanised and perfected by the carpet industry.
- 1964: Chemgrass is installed at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island.
- 1966: Chemgrass is installed at the Astrodome, and subsequently rebranded as ‘AstroTurf’.
- 1967: ‘AstroTurf’ is patented in the US.
- 1967: AstroTurf is installed in an outdoor stadium – Memorial Stadium at Indiana State University in Terre Haute – for the first time.
- 1969: the back yard of the house featured in long running US TV series The Brady Bunch is covered with AstroTurf.
- 1970s: artificial grass begins to be more widely adopted in sports stadiums, initially in North America.
- 1990s: artificial grass begins to be used more widely in commercial and residential settings.
- 1999: Spain’s Real Madrid CF is the first European football club to install AstroTurf (in their practice fields).
- Present day: the demand for synthetic turf continues to grow, and with the development of pioneering technologies such as Instant Recovery, Feelgood and Natural Look, the quality of the grass keeps on getting better and better.