Webster's dictionary defines the top as 'a child's toy shaped somewhat like an inverted cone, with a point at its apex upon which it is spun, usually by unwinding a string.' This definition is somewhat limited, as many references throughout history tell of tops also in reference to adults and some of which have no relation to a string. For example, even in primitive Malay, top spinning was an organized adult sport, with tops weighing up to 15 pounds. In Borneo and Java, the handicraft of tops limited them to adult use by their sheer size and weight. Pacific Islanders also had spiritual meanings to the top. In medieval times, there existed a parish top, frequently in the town square, for all to use. In countries such as Japan and China, jugglers and top-spinners are respected adult public entertainers. The most common concept of a top is a spinning object supported at one point only. A gyroscope, however, is a top and has an axle supported at two points, while the motion of a bullet from a gun is like that of a top although there is no point of support at all. It appears then, that a better definition would be simply objects that spin on a major axis.
The top is most likely to have been invented and re-invented many times by different cultures, completely independent of one another. As concluded by D.W. Gould in his book, The Top-Universal Toy, Enduring Pastime, if it had been easy to disperse information about a simple object such as a top across different continents, there would be evidence of inventions more critical to man's survival being passed among them as well, but there is not. Tops have been found on all continents except Antarctica. Although its use appears to have been for 'play', its introduction was most likely noticed in nature or through survival techniques developed and recognized in many areas of the world.
The most natural top is found in the simple acorn. Likewise, maple seeds, with their mesmerizing spin through the air could easily inspire the invention. A shell, as shown here, is also a natural found top and most certainly was discovered in areas, which had them available. The Japanese game, named 'bai' or 'bei' shows a shell used for the top and where the physics of spinning objects was explored by filling a shell with wax or sand in order to increase the top's weight.
Fire-starters, or file drills, found in many primitive cultures, using the rotation of a pointed object to produce fire, could likely have given rise to the spinning top. Another device, a whorl, is defined in Webster today as 'a flywheel on a spindle for regulating the speed of a spinning wheel'. Forms of spindle-whorls were found by archeologists in a number of sites such as Troy (Turkey) and pre-Columbian Peru, and were used to gather and separate fibers. These ancient whorls could have easily been modified by adding a disc to evolve naturally into a twirler top (defined later). Examples of tops made by natives of the Torres Straits (Pacific Islands) supports this development theory. Most primitive twirlers were likely to have been a seed, fruit or nut with a thorn or stick spiked through them.
Beginning in the 1960's, Duncan Toy Company began promotion of spin tops. Demonstrators, like those used with the yo-yo, were sent to run promotions in various cities across the United States. Initial tops were made of wood and were turnable-painted in large barrels or machine sprayed. Also during this time, plastics began to be produced by companies such as Duncan, Festival and Royal. Comparable weight plastic tops spun much longer than wooden tops, due to the fact that plastic tops were hollow, distributing the mass to the outside. During the years of 1963-1964, Duncan financed regional championships were set in place for the purpose of sending a regional champion to the National Spin Top Competition held at Disneyland in California each year. (The National Contest at Disneyland was run for three years, from 1962-1964, but 1962 was run for yo-yos only, while 63 and 64 had both a yo-yo and a spin top championship.) The cash prize was $5000, which in 1964 was huge. Winners were Pete Span (1st), Forest Larson (2nd) and Bob Donna (3rd). In 1965, the Duncan company filed bankruptcy. To the dismay of many determined young top players, the competitions stopped as well, leaving the number of years of National Championships for tops at two.
What's it worth? Take a look at this Spin Top price guide: sold listings for a value indication.