The first night Aussie rules game was held at the MCG in 1879, the same year that electric lights arrived in Melbourne.
Electricity is a physical phenomenon, manifested by the movement of electrons.
It has been known since ancient times, as numerous electrical effects are present in nature; everything from lightning, to electric eels, to your hair standing up in the presence of a static charge. But it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that electricity began to be understood.
Among many famous experiments conducted in this period, it was discovered that passing an electric current through certain materials would cause them to emit light.
As early as 1802, Humphry Davy, an English engineer and chemist, displayed a primitive electric light at London’s Royal Society.
Davy’s lamp consisted of a thin strip of platinum, connected to a massive series of batteries. While it illuminated briefly, the light it produced was too dim, and too short-lived, to be practical.
But Davy’s demonstration would inspire further experiments. Different materials, designs and sources of electric current were all tried, with varying results.
By the 1860s, two scientists on either side of the Atlantic were closing in on the first durable electric lights.
Joseph Swan was another English chemist, who also had a background in physics.
In the 1860s, his experiments with electric light lead him to a dramatic insight; if the material that the electricity would pass through, called a ‘filament’, was contained in a vacuum chamber, the light would be both more stable, and more efficiently produced.
Swan began designing glass globes, to house his filaments. This new type of light was referred to as 'incandescent'. But Swan's discoveries would be overshadowed by another inventor in America.
In America, Thomas Edison had also been tinkering with electric lights.
Building on Swan's ideas, without acknowledging them, in October 1878 Edison filed his first patent for an incandescent electric light bulb. Edison’s bulb featured a robust glass globe, containing a carbon fibre filament, surrounded by a vacuum.
He demonstrated his invention in a successful public test in October 1878; the bulb burning non stop for 13 hours. Edison’s light bulb was soon widely available, and it spread like wildfire.
Electric lighting arrived in Melbourne in 1879.
Limited numbers of bulbs, and electric generators, began appearing in the city that year, and were used to illuminate a handful of shops, and some private residences.
Prior to this, the city had relied on gas lighting. Artificially created gas was pumped into lighting receptacles, and then manually lit. But gas lighting had a number of short comings; the process used to manufacture the gas was highly toxic, and there were safety issues involved in using naked flame.
Electric lights were considered superior in most respects, and also had a novelty factor. Large crowds gathered to watch the first public demonstrations.
To capitalise on this interest, in August 1879 the Melbourne Cricket Club passed a proposal to stage an exhibition of night football, under electric lighting, at the MCG.
As the incandescent lightbulbs available at this time were not powerful enough, the club would rent a series of large-scale ‘arc lights’.
Arc lights also featured globes, only they were filled with gas, usually carbon. When electricity was fed into the globe, the gas would ‘spark’, and then illuminate.
The club acquired several large-scale arc light towers, and a steam-powered electric generator. Lieutenant Draper, of the local Victoria militia, was enlisted to oversee the lighting.
Draper, an engineer, had already conducted several public demonstrations of electric lighting in Melbourne, in front of large audiences.
The first night aussie rules game was played at the MCG on August 5, 1879.
Two amateur, military based clubs were enlisted to play; the Collingwood Rifles taking on the East Melbourne Artillery. Bands, sideshows, food carts, and a half time tug-of-war rounded out the evening’s entertainment.
A large crowd, estimated at 10 000, turned out to watch the show:
‘The appearance of the ground was very peculiar, being something between a strong moonlight and twilight.
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.’
- The Argus, August 6, 1879
Despite one of the lights going out, the night was considered a great success.
A larger game was lined up for the following weekend, with more significant clubs; Melbourne to play Carlton.
To try to offset some of the issues identified in the first game, officials added an additional light tower, and painted the ball white.
A similarly large crowd turned out to watch two of the most prominent teams of the era.
But despite the organiser’s best efforts, technical shortcomings again hampered the evening. The white ball burst after a few minutes play, and the replacement, a traditional red football, was much harder to see.
And while the lights remained fully functional this time, the glow they created was too mild for both players and spectators:
‘The light at commencing was very indifferent, and little of the play could be seen. The players could not see the ball in the uncertain light.’
- The Argus, August 13, 1879
Only four goals were kicked in the match; Carlton winning by a few points.
The large attendance at both night games ensured that the MCC turned a tidy profit from the exhibition matches.
But the poor quality of the lights, and the largely negative commentary from the press, discouraged them from staging any further matches.
The idea would not be revived until 1956, when the VFL began holding a ‘Night Premiership’; a short, knock out tournament as an adjunct to the Premiership Season.
Night games became a fixture of the regular season only in the 1980s. Initially held on Friday nights only, they are now a fixture of the AFL Premiership season, with most of the competition's largest games scheduled as night fixtures.