November 2011 | Home
November 9, 2011
In the 1890s, many of the football fans at Michigan's Regents Field spent at least part of every game in a state of desperate uncertainty about what, exactly, was happening down on the field. "It is impossible," the Michigan Daily noted, "for everyone on both sides of the field as well as in the grandstand and bleachers to keep track of the number of downs, yards to gain, etc., as their only method of information is through the referee, who can not be heard all over the field."
In 1898, these difficulties triggered a bright idea in the enterprising mind of Otto H. Hans, the Daily's 26-year-old business manager. In the days leading up to the Notre Dame game on October 23, Hans arranged for the construction of a 32-square-foot "U. of M. Daily Bulletin Board" at one end of the field.
When the game began on a rain-muddied field, Hans stood ready on a raised platform behind the "bulletin board." On the line of scrimmage he posted an assistant. This man listened to the referee call the yards to go, then sent coded signals to Hans, who promptly posted the down and yardage (and scores, of course) in big block figures visible up and down the field.
The final score that day read: Michigan 23, Notre Dame 0, and the scoreboard—the Daily bragged on its front page—was "a complete success."
Harvard claims to have built the first football scoreboard in 1893, and other scoreboards had been tried here and there. But Otto Hans's system was apparently one of the first that really worked. The Detroit Free Press called it "far more successful and intelligible than anything of the kind heretofore used on football fields."
For a fee of five dollars, Hans hauled the scoreboard to Chicago for the 1899 game against Wisconsin on Thanksgiving Day. The event's chief organizer praised it as "a pleasant surprise in all its details."
Born and raised in South Bend, Hans earned literary and law degrees at Michigan. Besides serving as business manager, he took a turn as the Daily's managing editor. (Another of his innovations was to begin Sunday publication, which allowed next-day coverage of football games. Ann Arbor clergymen disapproved, but Hans mollified them with the cancellation of the Daily's Monday edition, which freed the staff to observe the Sunday sabbath.) Hans went on to become manager and editor of two Ann Arbor newspapers—the Times and the Press—before retiring in 1927.
The "bulletin board" and its progeny became fixtures at Regents and, later, Ferry Field, serving the great "point-a-minute" teams of Coach Fielding H. Yost.
In 1930, three years after Yost, as athletic director, completed Michigan Stadium, the first electronic scoreboards were erected at a cost of $15,000, with downs and yards relayed by telephone to an operator in the pressbox.
At the scoreboards' first game—against Michigan State on October 4, 1930—the program included a warning: "If the new boards do not operate quite perfectly today, we ask that you bear in mind [their] operators have never manipulated [them] before. Long before the second half, however, operating errors should have been corrected." In fact, they didn't work at all. (The lack of a score on the boards was no problem; neither team earned a single point.) The next week the scoreboards worked, but it took several years to perfect the system.
Yost's old scoreboards were finally replaced in 1968, and refaced a number of times in the decades since.
In 2011, at a cost of some $20 million, high-definition video scoreboards were built at either end of the new Michigan Stadium. They show instant replays, video of Michigan's other teams, all kinds of amazing things. But the most important information they convey is arguably the same as what Otto Hans showed the fans in 1899—the score, the down, and the yards to go.