Philip Barker ©ITG

There is something particularly exciting about sport under the lights.

Now so familiar, it may be surprising to learn that the first serious attempts to illuminate the field of play came 140 years ago.

In 1878, a polo match in West London was played under lighting towers. Lord Petersham led the Hurlingham Club in a match against Ranelagh.

Spectators included the Prince of Wales.

That autumn, lights were installed at Bramall Lane in English city Sheffield for ''a great match between two teams comprised of 22 leading players of the Sheffield Football Association".

The "reds" were captained by Charles Clegg, later to become President of the country's Football Association (FA), and the "blues" by his brother William.

It was said that "the brilliance of the light dazzled the players and sometimes caused strange blunders".

A few weeks later, a match at Abergele in North Wales was supported by John Roberts, a local member of Parliament. The ''Skull and Cross Bones'' played another local side called ''Grosvenor''.

Such was the novelty, newspapers gave detailed accounts of how the illuminations were achieved. "Siemens dynamo electric machines, each of which gave light equal to 600 standard candles," one report read. "The electric current was produced by a cylinder of copper wire revolving before the poles of an electric magnet.''

Sport under floodlights is now common but it was not always the case ©Getty Images
Sport under floodlights is now common but it was not always the case ©Getty Images

None of this impressed the correspondent of the Rhyl Record and Advertiser as he wrote his report.

"The glaring light was put out, and we joined the disappointed throng in groping our way home determined to apply our sixpences to better use in future," he said.

London had a taste of the lights at  Kennington Oval, a cricket ground which also staged the FA Cup final at that time. Appropriately, it was the famous Wanderers, five-times winners of the trophy in the early years, who took part in a special match against Clapham Rovers.

"Football matches have been played at night by means of the new electric light," said one newspaper report. "Some of them have been very successful, although at others, some fault in the apparatus has left the competitors in comparative darkness at interesting periods of the game."

When horse racing under floodlights was suggested, one report said: "It is to be hoped that the Committee will think twice before they consent to this as the affair would be sure to end in rowdyism of the worst order."

In 1879, vast temporary towers were erected at five points at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for Australian rules football. The lighting was described as "something between a strong moonlight and twilight".

A volunteer patrol "kept outsiders from clambering over the fence". The ball was painted white and reportedly "required too much of an effort to follow it".

Before the end of the year, rugby had also experimented.

Broughton beat Swinton at the Yew Street Ground in Salford in England. Only two floodlit towers were used. The Manchester Weekly Times reported that "the other two corners were almost completely wrapped in darkness".

At Old Deer Park in Richmond, Surrey met Middlesex in a match where they tried painting the ball white to aid visibility. At another match "the ground had been marked out by chalk touchlines".

Unfortunately one of four lighting machines did not work properly and matters were not improved by fog.

"At times, the players were completely lost sight of by the would-be onlookers, and we should fancy they were sometimes out of sight of each other," it was reported. For all that, the event was described as "a decided success" because 5,000 paying customers turned up to watch. 

No doubt they enjoyed the refreshments which were provided by a Mr Taylor of the Golden Fleece public house.

Over in the United States, the Northern Electric Company of Boston placed three 100 foot light towers at the Sea Foam House in Hull, Massachusetts for a baseball match on Nantasket Beach in 1880. The match was between teams from department stores but it was forced to finish early so players could catch the ferry home.

They had to bat and throw ''with caution'' and made many mistakes under the lights. At subsequent matches the ball was dipped in phosphorous to aid visibility.

Cricket has now embraced light with regular day-night contests ©Getty Images
Cricket has now embraced light with regular day-night contests ©Getty Images

The press was very critical and it would be another half-a-century before lights became a regular part of the "ball game". During the depression of the late 1920s, events took another turn.

Crowds were thin during the daytime. Would-be patrons were either out at work or more likely looking for employment. James Leslie "Wilkie" Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team, commissioned portable floodlights to help attract the crowds. His brainwave worked and before long floodlights were a regular sight in Major League Baseball.

The idea also took off in American football. The short-lived but splendidly named Providence Steam Rollers played by night in 1929.

Unfortunately they lost against the Chicago Cardinals at Kinsley Park Stadium. The ball had been painted white and was described in one report as having the "appearance of a large egg". There was a panicky feeling that a player who made a catch would be "splattered with yellow yolk".

At least one player discovered his pay for floodlit matches was less than for daytime, apparently "to help pay the installation costs of the floodlights".

In 1936, a Summer Olympic ceremony took place by night for the first time. The closing of the Games in Berlin was notable for the use of searchlights to illuminate the stadium.

By this time, floodlights had already commanded the attention of some progressive thinkers in football. Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman saw them in Belgium and had them put in at the London club's training ground. He wanted to play matches by floodlight at Highbury but the football authorities of that time would not permit it.

It was not until after the Second World War that officialdom finally relented.

When the mighty Hungarian football team visited England in November 1953, their stunning 6-3 victory illuminated a murky winter's day at Wembley.

Many of the Hungarians returned to their club side Honved the following year to play a series of floodlit friendlies, including a famous encounter with Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Wolves wore old gold shirts, made of a special shiny material to be seen better against the lights and on television.

Such floodlit friendlies were the prelude to the European Cup where many midweek matches took place under lights. Real Madrid, who played all in white, were dominant in the first five tournaments 

Others such as England's Tottenham Hotspur and Leeds United followed suit, partly in tribute and partly because the all-white kit looked so stylish under floodlight.

In 1968, both the European Champions Cup final for clubs and the European Championship finals were played under the lights but it took until 1978 for the World Cup final to follow suit. There were some floodlit matches in the earlier rounds in 1966 and 1974, but this was to accommodate the demands of television.

In the 1970s there was even a trophy specifically for televised floodlit matches in rugby league.

Union players had been used to training under the lights since the 1930s as they replaced stuffy gymnasiums by "working out of doors".

The Champions League is almost exclusively played under lights ©Getty Images
The Champions League is almost exclusively played under lights ©Getty Images

Matches at night did not become commonplace until the 1990s, however. The World Cup final was played under the lights for the first time in 1999.

A range of other sports which had always been considered as strictly daytime fare have also moved to the evenings.

It took a rebel competition called World Series Cricket (WSC) in the late 1970s to harness the power of electric light.

Australian television magnate Kerry Packer established the breakaway organisation. Initially banned from using regular cricket grounds, he used the Australian rules field VFL Park in Melbourne. A white ball, black sight-screens and coloured clothing were introduced, as well as the slogan "big boys play at night!".

"The day floodlit cricket came to Melbourne was the day I knew WSC had arrived," said the late Tony Greig, a leading WSC player. 

"The high powered lights created a tingling expectant atmosphere." In less than two years, official cricket had introduced matches under the lights. 

Curiously, there had been experiments in night cricket a century earlier at the English seaside resort of Hastings. In 1883 "a very novel idea" was carried out. Frequent were the rounds of laughter when the cricketers "endeavoured to find the ball in some dark corner".

The first heyday of floodlit athletics came in the 1950s. The great Vladimir Kuts was part of a Moscow team which took part in matches against other cities under floodlights.

Yet it was not until 1968 in Mexico City that a regular Olympic track and field programme was held by night, although Abebe Bikila's famous Olympic marathon victory in 1960 was sealed along a floodlit Appian Way in Rome.

The floodlights add extra atmosphere to Winter Olympic sports such as biathlon ©Getty Images
The floodlights add extra atmosphere to Winter Olympic sports such as biathlon ©Getty Images

Since 1992, every Summer Olympic Opening ceremony has taken place by night as ceremony designers have seized on the potential for special effects offered by the lights.

Daylight is in short supply at the Winter Olympics so many skiing events are now staged under the lights. In Pyeongchang this year, the cross-country and biathlon course looked even more dramatic under the lights. The ski jumping events now happen exclusively by night.

At the Summer Games, many of the showpiece events are held under the lights. It would be hard to match the theatre of Usain Bolt's unprecedented three gold medals at 100 metres. 

Under the lights it had a drama all of its own, accompanied by a hundred thousand flashes in the crowd.