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Daniel Wilco | | July 1, 2020

The story of the first-ever night football game, in 1892

Mansfield's 2010 reenactment of the first-ever night football game in 1892

On Saturday, Nov. 6, 1869, Rutgers and New Jersey (later known as Princeton) played in the first American football game.

Almost 23 years later, on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1892, two teams — and a giant generator — got together for another revolutionary moment in the sport: The first American football game at night.

Here’s how it happened:

Mansfield vs. Wyoming Seminary, 1892

While the first incandescent light was invented in 1802, electric lights weren’t truly commercially widespread until the 1870s. 

In 1892, the town of Mansfield, Pennsylvania was hosting its 13th annual county fair, officially known as the Tioga County Agricultural, Mechanical and Industrial Fair. According to the local newspaper at the time, the Mansfield Advertiser, approximately 18,000 to 20,000 people attended that edition.

A main draw of the event was an brand-new electric light display, which was just one of the amazing highlights recounted in the newspaper's fair breakdown that week. Others include:

‘The peanut man sang himself hoarse, but he sold peanuts just the same.’

‘The music instrument booths, as usual, were a never failing attraction in the main building.’

‘The cattle and horse show was fine.’

But there is one that sticks out above the rest:

‘The foot ball game by electric light was a novelty not often seen at fairs.’

In fact, a “foot ball game by electric light” was a novelty not seen anywhere before that night. While football and electric lights had been around for a couple decades, no one had ever put the two together before.

According to a program published by Mansfield University of Pennsylvania in 1992, the idea for the game originated from the players on Mansfield’s football team, which had its inaugural season in 1891. 

Mansfield's 1891 football team, which went 3-1 on the seasonMansfield's 1891 football team, which went 3-1 on the season

The team joined forces with the General Electric Company, which was showcasing a new electric light setup at that year’s fair. They would promote the new sport and the newer lights at the biggest event of the year.

Here’s an excerpt detailing that exhibition, from the Mansfield Advertiser:

‘The electric light dynamo which is to be used to illuminate the fair grounds is a Thomson-Houston Machine of thirty light capacity. It weighs 4300 pounds, and the generator, containing miles of insulated copper wire, makes nearly a thousand revolutions a minute. The lights to be used are twenty lamps of 2000 candle power and five 64-candle incandescent lights. The power to operate the dynamo is to be furnished by Messrs. Day & Warters from their 20-horse engine. The plant is in charge of H. E. Varney, of Philadelphia, and J. L. Cummings, of this boro.’

The Mansfield Advertiser promotes the new lighting setup at the 1892 fairThe Mansfield Advertiser promotes the new lighting setup at the 1892 fair

The game itself was scheduled for 7:30 at night, but actually began at 6:45 p.m. Lights were stationed on poles around the perimeter of the field, and one light pole stood in the middle of the playing field.

Wyoming Seminary donned white uniforms, hoping they would reflect light better and be more visible. Mansfield opted for all-black for the first time in their program’s history. To be fair, their program had played just four games before this matchup (but was 3-1 in 1891).

You can get a good idea of the setup thanks to this 1992 Monday Night Football commercial, by General Electric, of a recreation of the game:

Even with lights everywhere, the lighting was very lacking. The Mansfield program reports that “the teams were often unaware of which squad had the ball. Anyone in a uniform was liable to be tackled.” According to some reports that also included the referee and the umpire, and at least one player collided with the light pole in the middle of the field.

Since the playing surface was also in the middle of the fairgrounds, it was “full of holes, butternuts, pebbles and ‘animal residue’.”

After 20 minutes of game time, only 10 plays had been run, and neither team had managed to score. 

The next week’s edition of the Mansfield Advertiser details the results:

“Wednesday evening of the fair the first game of foot ball on record by electric light occurred between the Kingston and M. S. N. S. teams. The game was called at 7:30 with the ball in the possession of the Normals. The game was hotly contested from beginning to end of the first half, at the expiration of which the game was decided a draw, as both captains considered it inconvenient to continue. Prof. Race, of the Wyoming seminary, acted as umpire and Dwight Smith, of the Normal, as referee.”

Still, even with a 0-0 score, it appears as though Mansfield claimed victory on the game. In that same edition of the paper, the Wyoming Seminary team issued a public challenge for a rematch to Mansfield, where they rebuked Mansfield’s claim to victory:

Wyoming Seminary challenged Mansfield to a rematch after the 1892 gameWyoming Seminary challenged Mansfield to a rematch after the 1892 game

It took 100 years for the Mansfield ‘Normals’ to formally accept that challenge. In 1992, the two teams agreed to play, with Mansfield fielding a club team (since they were playing a high school after all).

Mansfield now competes in Division II, but the school has since cut its DII football program. Instead, the Mounties compete in Sprint Football — a non-NCAA sport that resembles collegiate football in virtually every way, except for the requirement that all players weigh no more than 172 pounds 48 hours prior to kickoff. 

MORE MANSFIELD: DII football's must-see stadums for the die-hard fan: Fan's choice

Currently, there are ten teams in the Collegiate Sprint Football League — Alderson Broaddus, Army West Point, Caldwell, Chestnut Hill, Cornell, Mansfield, Navy, Penn, Post, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Michigan, Rutgers, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Villanova, and others all fielded teams in the past, but have since cut their programs.

Some notable names have come out of the game. President Jimmy Carter played at Navy, Patriots owner Bob Kraft played at Columbia, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld played at Princeton.

And, on Sept. 14, 2013 — 121 years after the first-ever night football game — Mansfield hosted its second-ever football game under the lights, facing off against Princeton in the 2013 CSFL opener for both teams. The Mountaineers won the game 24-14.

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