Today, we play football. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Outside the US, the word football applies to what
we call soccer or Rugby. Those games came close to their modern
forms in 19th-century Britain. Meanwhile, here in America, a different form of
football quickly began evolving away from Rugby. An 1887 Century Magazine
article shows how that worked:
It's titled The American game of Foot-Ball (that's two words). It tells
about the popularity of this new game in schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
It says that southern colleges show little interest. No hint that Harvard and
Yale will one day lag far behind foot-ball powers like Alabama and Georgia Tech.
Nor is there any suspicion that football will go professional only five years later
-- and that college football will one day be bent by having to serve as the minor
leagues for professional teams.
Now, everything in the article refers back to Rugby. The author is impressed with
how we've improved the Rugby method of putting the ball in play -- the scrum.
Foot-ball uses the more logical method of lining two teams up, facing one another
across a scrimmage line.
The teams have been trimmed from fifteen to eleven players. Foot-ball touch-downs
count only four points. The forward pass is not yet allowed. Advancing the ball
depends strongly on lateral passing -- something we see little of in today's games.
As in Rugby, early foot-ball players used no protective gear. So the rules of physical
contact were stricter than they are now. No tackling below the waist or above the shoulders.
The game is rough, says the author, but he believes it's as safe as any other outdoor sport
-- as long as it's played by people with proper training and conditioning. Two foot-ball
players died the year before; but in small colleges where players were poorly-prepared.
Left: A fair tackle (above the waist) in 1887. Right: A fair tackle in the 21st century.
The writer sees the game in moral terms. Here are means for turning boys into men.
Self-control is of the essence -- no place for anger on the football field. Furthermore,
football is, and I quote, "one of the most scientific games in its 'team playing,' or
management of the entire side as one body."
The game does not demand great wealth to play. Rowing requires the purchase of a skull
and oars, and polo requires a pony. But any lad can improve himself playing this game.
The writer sees foot-ball's kinship to war. (And it still reminds you and me of Napoleonic
armies arrayed against one another -- each seeking to claim the other's territory.) Yet
if England's wars were won on the playing fields of Eton, he sees something else here.
Foot-ball can build character, as the recent Civil War did -- but without the carnage.
He's thinking, not of war, but of peace.
Breaking through the "Rush Line" (as scrimmage was called) in 1887 and today.
I'm about to groan. Then I realize: we really did pass the latter 19th century in peace.
Maybe the writer was on to something. I wonder if universities could once again create
intercollegiate football leagues for students. An interesting concept -- I wonder what
could be made to work in this day and age.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A. Johnston, The American Game of Football. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine,
Vol XXXIV, No. 5, September, 1887, pp. 888-898. (All drawings from this source. All photos by John Lienhard)
See also the Wikipedia articles on American Football and Rugby as well as
this article on the history
of American football.
The audio outro is "You Gotta be a Football Hero" courtesy of the
Hoffman Estates High School Marching band.
My thanks to Keith Hollingsworth, UH Mech. Engr. Dept., for his counsel.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.