Shedding Light on Football’s Early Night Games ($)
Until recently, I thought night football games were rare in football's early days, but a recent investigation uncovered more than thirty games before 1910; half or more occurred indoors. Arena football, it turns out, has been around for a while. Still, despite inadequate lighting systems, most early night games occurred outdoors because night games were a novelty and allowed some fans to attend games that could not do so in daylight.
To understand the challenges of lighting football fields in the 1800s, we'll quickly examine early electrical lighting systems. Thomas Edison pioneered many electrical system elements through his inventions and provided soup-to-nuts systems to power individual factories or homes. Edison also built the first centralized power system in 1882, the Pearl Street plant in New York City. A steam-powered direct current system, Pearl Street powered 3,000 lamps, all of which had to be within one-half mile of the generator because direct current could not be transmitted over distance at the time. By 1890, George Westinghouse and others engineered alternating current systems capable of lighting lamps twenty-five miles from the power source. Even then, the inability to distribute power over greater distances resulted in a power system consisting of independent generating plants, each providing electricity for one factory, trolley system, or city's streetlights. The integrated power grid we take for granted was decades in the future.
Beyond power being available only in pods, the lighting quality was poor. Arc lamps were annoyingly bright, while the typical household bulb in 1890 was one-tenth as bright as those of the 1920s, and the latter was much less bright than today's LEDs. The combination meant early night games needed a nearby power source. The local organizers also had to muster large numbers of lights, the reflectors to direct the light, and the resources to construct a system needed to hang the lights about the playing field. Few locations managed all three.
The one group of locations that managed to put it together was the exposition halls emerging in major cities with large windows on their exterior walls and a combination of gas and electric lighting. These exposition halls held political and business conventions along with entertainment events, including sports. For sporting events, they had the advantage of protecting spectators from inclement weather and, due to their lighting systems, the ability to field events at night. In addition, playing under artificial light attracted crowds due to its novelty and because most Americans worked six days per week and were unable to attend afternoon events.
The introduction of indoor football appears to have been an 1889 game played at the Philadelphia Academy of Music between the University of Pennsylvania and the Riverton Club, which four Princeton players supplemented. With an attendance of 2,000, including the season's debutantes and other socialites, the game was a commercial success and athletic failure. Played on a carpeted floor, kicking was not allowed, which meant the game devolved into fistball rather than football. The Philadelphia Inquirer game report describes numerous fistfights and other shenanigans, with the game ending in a 0-0 tie.
The second game played under the lights was an 1891 indoor contest that was part of a multi-sport tournament sponsored by the Staten Island Athletic Club at the second Madison Square Garden in New York City. The tournament included a football game played between the Springfield YMCA Training School -player-coach Amos Alonzo Stagg led the way- and an aggregation team with five Yale varsity players, including Pudge Heffelfinger. Starting just before midnight, Springfield led late in the second half before giving up a late touchdown. Unfortunately for Springfield, the aggregation's goal after touchdown attempt hit the goal post, bounced back onto the field, and was recovered by the aggregation team inside the ten. Under the rules of the day, that gave the aggregation team a new set of downs, and they soon scored a second touchdown to win the game.