The Thomas Cup competition was the idea of Sir George Alan Thomas, a highly successful English badminton player of the early 1900's, who was inspired by tennis's Davis Cup, and football's (soccer's) World Cup first held in 1930. His idea was well received at the general meeting of the International Badminton Federation (now Badminton World Federation) in 1939.
In the same year, Sir George presented the Thomas Cup, officially known as The International Badminton Championship Challenge Cup, produced by Atkin Bros of London at a cost of US$40,000. The Cup stands 28 inches high and 16 inches across at its widest, and consists of three parts: a plinth (pedestal), a bowl, and a lid with player figure .
The first tournament was originally planned for 1941-1942 (badminton seasons in the northern hemisphere traditionally ran from the autumn of one calendar year to the spring of the next), but was delayed when World War II exploded across the continents. Sir George's dream was finally realized in 1948-1949 when ten national teams participated in the first Thomas Cup competition. Three qualifying zones were established: Pan America, Europe, and the Pacific; though Malaya (now Malaysia) was the only Pacific zone participant. In a format that would last until 1984, all ties (matches between nations) would consist of nine individual matches; the victorious nation needing to win at least five of these contests. The top two singles players for each side faced both of the top two players for the opposite side, accounting for four matches. A fifth singles match took place between the third ranked singles players for each team. Finally, two doubles pairings for each side played both of the doubles pairings for the opposite side, accounting for four more matches. Each tie was normally contested over two days, four matches on the first day and five on the next.The United States and Denmark won their respective zone qualifications and thus joined Malaya for the inter-zone ties.
The inter-zone ties were held in the United Kingdom. As the tournament used a knockout (single elimination) system, rather than a round-robin system, one country, Denmark, was given a bye in the first round. Malaya defeated the USA 6–3 in a highly competitive match played in Glasgow, Scotland (curiously, none of the players on either side had previously seen any of the players on the other side play). Of note, this tie marked the first of only three ever matches between the USA's Dave Freeman and Malaya's Wong Peng Soon the two greatest singles players of the early post-war period. In the final round held in Preston, England, Malaya beat Denmark 8–1 and became the first nation to win a Thomas Cup.
 DevelopmentDuring the next several Thomas Cup competitions the number of participating nations grew and a fourth qualifying zone was added. The former Pacific zone was converted into Asian and Australasian zones for the 1954-1955 tournament. Beginning with the second tournament in 1951-1952, zone winners contested to determine a challenger for the reigning champion nation. Until 1964 the Cup-holding nation always hosted these inter-zone ties but was exempt from them, and from the earlier intra-zone matches, needing only to defend its title, at home, in a single, conclusive challenge round tie.
With veterans such as Wong Peng Soon. Ooi Teik Hock, and Ong Poh Lim leading the way Malaya comfortably retained the Cup in Singapore against the USA (7–2) in 1952 and Denmark (8–1) in 1955. Malaya's reign, however, was ended in 1958 (3 matches to 6) by upstart Indonesia led by Ferry Sonneville and Tan Joe Hok. Indonesia successfully defended its title in 1961 against a young team from Thailand which had surprised Denmark in the inter-zone final.
Amid some complaints of home court advantage (and "home climate" advantage as far as the Europeans were concerned), a rules change effective in 1964 prevented the reigning champion nation from defending the Cup at home twice in succession. The challenge round played in Tokyo, Japan that year was nonetheless controversial because the Danish challengers were barracked and severely harassed during play by young Indonesian fans. A narrow 5–4 Indonesian victory was upheld by the IBF (BWF) over Danish protest. When the challenge round returned to Jakarta in 1967 a resurgent Malaysia led Indonesia 4-3 (despite the spectacular debut of Indonesia's young Rudy Hartono) when crowd interference during the eighth match prompted tournament referee Herbert Scheele to halt play. When Indonesia rejected an IBF (BWF) decision to resume the contest in New Zealand, Malaysia was awarded the outstanding matches (6–3) and with them the Thomas Cup.
After 1967 the IBF (BWF) further reduced the advantages accorded to the defending champion by eliminating the old challenge round system. Instead, the Cup defender would receive a bye only to an inter-zone semifinal berth and then have to earn its way into the decisive final match. This change, however, proved to be little obstacle for a rampant Indonesia. With a cadre of talented players including Hartono and doubles wizards such as Tjun Tjun and Christian Hadinata, Indonesia dominated Thomas Cup competition throughout the seventies. Its successful effort to regain the cup in 1969-1970 was a struggle, but in the competitions ending in 1973, 1976, and 1979 Indonesia swept its ties by winning a remarkable 51 of 54 individual matches.
In 1982, however, China burst onto the scene as a new member of the IBF (BWF). Having long before developed players as good as, or better than, any in the world (especially in singles), China defeated Indonesia in a classic 5–4 final in London. Thus began an era continuing to the present which has seen either China or Indonesia capture or retain the Cup. The pattern has been broken only once, by Malaysia in 1992.