"pole jumping" competitions were known to the ancient Greeks, as well as the Cretans and Celts, but modern competitions probably began around 1850 in Germany, and the modern pole vaulting technique was developed in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. While women's pole vault records were kept for many years, the event only started to gain popularity in the 1990's.
To complete a vault, competitors sprint towards the bar and "plant" one end of the poles (which vary significantly in length, and competitors choose different ones depending on their own form and the weather conditions) in a small hole just in front of mattress and bar, using the kinetic energy gained in their sprint to cause the pole to bend as they pivot up off the ground. As the pole angles towards the vertical, it spring back straight, releasing its stored energy to drive the vaulter higher. Competitors, by this time, push off from the pole and attempt to roll over the bar with the abdomen facing down, landing on a soft foam mat. The other equipment and rules for the competition are virtually identical to the high jump.
The pole vault is exciting to watch because of the extreme heights reached by competitors, and is thus popular with spectators.