Scoreboards: A pictorial history of the bizarre and the brilliant

This weekend, Newcastle will unveil the Premier League’s newest, largest and most state-of-the-art electronic scoreboard inside St James' Park, a board so monumentally massive that it’s probably visible from space. "How did it come to this?" you might ask. So let Nick Harper explain... 
Millwall vs Newcastle, Jan 1957: Terraces, floodlights and scoreboards packed at the The Den

"Avoid obscured-view seating..."

Where relaying scores from other games was concerned, the first great technological breakthrough involved nothing more advanced than sticking a small man inside a wooden box and instructing him to hang numbers up to signify the scores.

Nowadays, of course, thanks to the technological insanity of having the whole internet stuffed into your mobile phone, it's impossible not to know the scores of any game taking place at any stadium in the world at any time of day or night. A tsunami of information is all but a flick of your thumb and a decent 4G connection away. But the old days were very different, as this photograph of Millwall hosting Newcastle United in 1957 clearly illustrates.
Overlooking the very obvious issues of health and safety, as the club themselves obviously did, you'll notice the pioneering scorebox in shot here, just about visible underneath the arms and legs of various ‘sarf Lahn’ rogues.
The premise was devilishly simple. Those square windows on the front of the box corresponded with a game taking place somewhere else in England that day. So, for example, box 'A' was assigned to the game between Arsenal against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Box 'B' was Liverpool against Everton. Box 'C' for etc against so on and so forth. At half-time, having received the scores via carrier pigeon, the little man inside the box would shuffle around shoving the number boards up – a '1' for Arsenal and a '0' for etc. And so on and so on.
As the numbers went up, so did the jeers and cheers of the fans inside the stadium – albeit after a long silence in which everyone attempted to decipher the complicated code. Because, in a devious twist by the club, the paying punter would only make sense of the numbers if he purchased the official match programme, as that revealed which letter was which game. (Of course, he could just have asked the man beside him to ask the man beside him, but then he'd have entered into an overblown round of Chinese Whispers so couldn't be sure if what he was hearing was true). Some of the more progressive scoreboxes were updated as the game went on, making them the forerunner to the BBC's Vidiprinter, on super slow-mo.
You might wonder why the club didn't just read the scores out over the Tannoy, which would have been quicker and easier for everybody. But how do you make any money from that? Yes, the rampant commercialism of the beautiful game was very much up and running.

Back in the murk: Huddersfield, home of technological innovation

Binning the manual labour

The scorebox was eventually and inevitably superseded by the manual scoreboard, which as the name suggests was a board onto which the scores were added. Initially, this had to be done by hand by a man frantically working the board from the rear. (Probably the same man who previously lived inside the scorebox, for his skills were entirely transferrable and the robots hadn't yet taken his livelihood.)
Such boards were a common sight around football grounds throughout the 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s. But even as far back as the 1950s, Huddersfield Town had seen the light on how new technology could change the matchday experience and were offering fans a tantalising glimpse of The Future.
Gifted a giant electronic scoreboard by Dutch technological giant Philips, who had a factory near Huddersfield and whose sporting club PSV Eindhoven had close links with the Terriers, the club installed the board on their open Dalton Bank End.
With one flick of a switch, this electronic wizard screened the score and scores using futuristic white lights to the disbelieving amazement of fans on the Leeds Road terraces. This was nothing short of miraculous, but then some thundering great sh*thouses vandalised it in 1970 and it had to be replaced by a manual board. Even so, Philips and Huddersfield Town had clearly opened English football's eyes to what could and soon would be achieved.

More Yorkshire hi-tech: West Germany vs Switzerland at Hillsborough in the 1966 World Cup

Ooo, shiny new thing

In the 1960s, as England prepared to host her World Cup in 1966 (which we apparently won), Sheffield Wednesday installed their own state-of-the-art electronic scoreboard.

Previously, most boards had been little more than glorified Subbuteo affairs – offering just team names and the score. Sheffield Wednesday’s new cutting-edge board went the extra mile, offering the score, goalscorers' names, details of injuries, substitutes and all the half-time scores. Described by Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly as “a tremendous success”, the esteemed periodical added that the prospect of similar technology sweeping other grounds would be “a boon to supporters”. Because that’s how they talked back then.

“It’s a sure fire way of getting information over to a very large audience in a crisp, clear and compelling manner,” chirped Wednesday's general manager, Eric Taylor. And he was right. But as we were all to find out, this tech wasn't entirely flawless.

World Cup 1974, Yugoslavia vs Zaire: the latter so hopeless that they broke the scoreboard

Techno meltdown

During the early days of this electronic revolution, the limitations of the technology available were often glaringly and amusingly obvious. At Everton in 1971, as the hosts rattled eight past Southampton with no reply, the scoreboard struggled to cope and quickly ran out of room. "Information overload, cannot compute", it screamed, so turned the goalscorers that day – David Johnson, Joe Royle and Alan Ball – into a list of numbers: '7, 9, 7, 9, 8, 9, 9, 7'.

Similarly shambolic scenes were witnessed during the 1974 World Cup, when Yugoslavia ran up a cricket score against hopeless Zaire. With steam billowing from its electronic innards, the board waved a little white flag and stuck down Ilija Petkovic and Dusan Bajevic, the scorers of goals eight and nine, as NR7 and NR19. Clearly, football was going to need a bigger, better scoreboard.

Sep 1982: The Vicarage Road scoreboard celebrates one of Luther Blissett's two goals

Uncle Sam's hawks

Rather predictably, the Americans were the first to seize on the potential of all-singing, all-dancing massive-sized stadium scoreboards. Realising that a bigger board would allow clubs to hawk advertisers' wares to a captive audience of thousands, Uncle Sam began importing cutting-edge technology from the Far East, with the NASL noted for its (literally) flashy scoreboards.

And as this image of a game at Watford in 1982 shows, English clubs were embracing the concept of hawking stuff to the fans as they watched the game (well done Luther indeed, but just look how short the telephone numbers were back then), only they lacked the hi-tech needed to maximise and monetise the message.

World Cup 86, Brazil vs Northern Ireland: Players are personal friends, but the gaffer's a distant surname

Analogue action...

Of course, not every ground got a digital screen, and not every ground abandoned the analogue versions. The Mexico 86 World Cup showcased the best, or worst, of both ideas - sometimes at the same venue.

At one end of Guadalajara's Jalisco Stadium, the scoreboard consisted of cheap plastic letters and numbers on a rickety frame. Here we see Northern Ireland's line-up for the group game against Brazil, and what it lacked in technological terms it more than made up for in charm. Listing the players by their first names was a nice personal touch, and a bonus point if you can recall the surname of the lad 'Malachy'. And check the reverential respect the board afforded the manager, Mr Bingham, although why the 'E' when his name was William and his nickname Billy? 

World Cup 86, France vs Brazil: Platini fluffs his penalty, the scoreboard fluffs its lines distraction

Elsewhere in the same Jalisco Stadium, the cutting edge of technology turned in on itself during the showpiece quarter-final between Brazil and France, which went all the way to a penalty shoot-out - never an easy thing for a scoreboard to deal with.  

The Jalisco's electronic affair was one of the first of its kind to feature a groundbreaking human personality chip: witness the grief and bewilderment after the genius Michel Platini had blazed his spotkick wildly over. Minutes later, after France squeezed through 4-3 and the board exploded in an orgasmic overload, FIFA vowed to revert back to the old plastic letters. But you can't halt progress...

September 1996: New Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says hello from Japan

Destiny calling

In the years that followed, the race was on to install the biggest, brightest screen. Villa Park was amongst the first, installing 36m² Virtuality in-stadia LED screens. At Highbury, Arsenal installed Sony JumboTron technology, which was how new manager Arsene Wenger introduced himself to startled Gooners by videolink from Japan before a match, beamed up in the corner of the room like Princess Leia beamed from R2D2's beeping bonce.

By the time Arsenal moved home a decade later, TV technology had leapt forward. Most homes had flatscreen rather than cathode-ray tellies, and stadium screens were also getting more clarity and clout. The Emirates opted for a Mitsubishi Diamond Vision AVL-OD12 screen some 12m wide by 6m tall and five tonnes heavy. New Wembley put up two mammoth screens the equivalent of 600 domestic television sets. And then came Newcastle United.

Without a scoreboard since the ground’s redevelopment in the early 1990s, the big surprise is that it’s taken so long for Mike Ashley to install a whopping great screen to flash adverts from his “commercial partners” to the topless masses. At 60m across, it proudly boasts of being the Premier League’s biggest. But in a world where bigger is always better, don't expect that record to last for long. Unsurprisingly, there's already far bigger in the States...

Jacksonville jolly: Pack your trunks for DC United vs Fulham at the EverBank Field

Pool party

Americans have long loved a big telly, and sports suits haven't been shy of providing one. Back at the 1980 MLB All-Star Game, Mitsubishi’s Diamond Vision large-scale LED display system offered a gigantic screen onto which the owner could flash the scores, the team lineups, the time and all those basics, but where they could also maximise matchday revenue by flashing sponsors’ messages in super slick hi-def, plus shots of hot dogs and beer that made the fans plod like zombies towards the concession stands.

Since then it's been a race for the biggest screen, accelerated as technology allows. The largest JumboTron was a 10m x 33.5m job at the Toronto SkyDome, but the LED screen at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium is 22m x 48.7m. Then there's the EverBank Field stadium, home of NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, who like are owned by fun-loving moustache-shelf Shahid Khan. The stadium's recent renovations - unveiled for a friendly against the Cottagers last July - include not only "video boards" a startling 110 metres across, but also swimming pools and chuffing cabanas in what can only be some kind of sick joke. Although, actually, a hot tub on a frosty February night in Fulham makes complete sense...