Introduction


Football at night access to people who were unable to come to games on Saturdays afternoons and with Sunday football off limits until the late 1950s, playing in the evenings was potentially convenient and lucrative.

1879 Arc Lights at the MCG

The first night football matches were played at the MCG in 1879. To understand how early and groundbreaking the matches actually were was we need a bit of background.

The big news in Australia in 1879 was the Zulu war in South Africa, a betting scandal at the third ever Test Match in Sydney, work beginning on the World Heritage listed Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne and also, after a hot air balloon failure at the Melbourne showgrounds, Melbourne’s first demonstration of a parachute. But for our purposes, in the October 1979, in the United States, Thomas Edison demonstrated his electric light bulb.

1879 is internationally remembered for Edison’s breakthrough, this was not the first use of electric light. Experiments had been happening for years with attempts at creating lighting though heat (light globes) as well as via arc lighting (which was used in lighthouses). The first public demonstration of electric light in Australia was in the Sydney Observatory in 1863, and from that time portable arc light generator existed, but were expensive to run. It was not until 1880 that commercial operation started when the Victorian Electric Light Company, was formed in Melbourne.

Internationally electricity was beginning to be installed in workplaces and entertainment complexes. In England the first Soccer match under electric light was held at Bramall Lane on the 14th of October 1878 (Chrishobbs.com). The event was reported in Australia(Argus 18Oct1878 p2) and then a match was played under electric light in New Zealand and reported in Melbourne in June 1879. (Argus 2Jun1879 p5)

Argus 24Jul1879 p8
Argus 24Jul1879 p8
With these overseas beginnings on smaller soccer grounds, an attempt was made to play Australian Rules under electric light.

In 1879 Australian rules football was only 20 years old, and the new ruling body, the Victorian Football Association only two years old. Teams still had 20 players per side. But Melbourne, at the height of it’s gold rush wealth embraced the new technology.

Two matches were played under lights at the MCG.

The First Game -5th August 1879

The first match was between two obscure teams, East Melbourne Artillery and Collingwood Rifles. The teams were linked to lieutenant Draper of Collingwood, who was in charge of the electricity. The Argus estimated that around 10,000 people watched the game with many others still outside while the game was on. The novelty of Electricity was probably the big drawcard.

Light was provided by five specially constructed lights (though one failed). Entertainment included two bands and a half-time tug-of-war competition won by the Artillery men. – (Argus 6-Aug-1879 p3)

 Football_electric_lighting_MCG_1879 Source:SLV Collection
Football_electric_lighting_MCG_1879 Source:SLV Collection


The light was not great. The Argus reported:
The appearance of the ground was very peculiar, being something between a strong moonlight and twilight, with brilliant points opposite the lights. ....The lights were fitful. The one on the opposite side to the stand and close to the engine burned badly from the first and soon went out altogether. The play did not excite much interest, as the men were continually going out of sight into dark patches, and the ball, thought painted white, required too much of an effort for the eye to follow it. (Argus 6Aug1879 p3)

Artillery scored a goal in the first half of the game, and again in the second half, but the game ended in farce when the Collingwood captain asked for a head count of the opposition and when the game stopped, the spectators believed the game was over and went on to the ground ending the match permanently. (and profitably)

See ozsportshistory for more details on the game.

The Second Game - 13th August 1879

The following week VFA teams Melbourne and Carlton took the field for a night match. A sixth light was added for the event.

George Coulthard - Source: Blueseum
George Coulthard - Source: Blueseum
The event started an hour late, due to problems with the electricity, and even with the addition of the extra lighting, the Argus reported "the light at commencing was very indifferent, and but little of the play could be seen”. To add to the problems, within minutes of starting the match, the white ball burst, forcing play to continue with a regular ball, which according to the Argus play with the dark ball was the only amusing part of the evening’s business”. Later the white ball was returned, but light was still a problem and spectators could not see across the ground. The Argus concluded that football by electric light is a failure. The players cannot see the ball in the uncertain light” - (Argus 14Aug1879 p7)

For the record, Carlton won the game three goals to none. George Coulthard kicked Carlton's goals. (demonwiki reports that this match did not count toward the premiership)

Football at night (Match unknown) Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil 30Aug1879 p84 Source:Trove
Football at night (Match unknown) Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil 30Aug1879 p84 Source:Trove


Possible Third Game

A number of websites list a third game under lights in 1879 as Essendon v Melbourne at the end of August (possibly 29-30 Aug). But I can find no contemporary references for such a game.

demonwiki indicates that Melbourne played Essendon on August 30 as part of the VFA regular competition and makes no mention of any midweek game under lights. On the other hand, the public interest in the first two games was high and there was no financial reason to end night matches.

Aftermath

It would be nearly 56 years before night football would be tried again in Victoria.



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