Ticked-off basketball fans led to the invention of first time clock for high-school sports

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Jan. 20, 2020

An angry mob of boys’ basketball fans blocked Elmer Foster’s path to his car after Dallas Center lost in overtime to their Dallas County rival, Adel, in January 1934.

Foster taught physics and served as superintendent of Dallas Center schools.

Foster walked home on that cold night because of the hotly contested boys’ basketball game at Dallas Center. The Adel team featured future University of Iowa football star and Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick.

In those days, there were no scoreboards with time clocks. The score was displayed at center court at the scorers table using papers on rings, turned over with each basket.

But the crowd couldn’t see the time in the game. Each team provided an official timekeeper with a stopwatch rather than having a game clock displayed for all to see.

An Adel player sunk a shot as time expired to tie the game. The two timekeepers argued. The decision fell to Foster.

“Everyone was jumping up and down and yelling, ‘How much time?’” Foster told the Register in a 1955 profile. “I thought then there ought to be a scoreboard to let them know.”

He ruled “fair play” should decide the game, and the teams went to overtime. Dallas Center lost.

A few hometown fans made for Foster’s frigid walk. But he used the stroll to think, and that night hatched the beginnings of a device that would change sports forever: a basketball scoreboard that showed both the score and the time remaining in the game.

Scoreboards dated back to the 1890s in Ivy League football games and electric baseball scoreboards began in 1908 with Major League Baseball teams in Boston.

Baseball is a sport without a clock. Football fields displayed the score, but referees kept the time on stopwatches; the public couldn’t see it. Foster set out to combined the two so fans and officials alike could see it.

Foster asked a Dallas Center jeweler to convert an electric clock to 8-minute intervals that could be controlled by a wired remote box on the sidelines.

The original board stood 3-feet tall and 3-and-a-half-feet wide. Belts swiped from his wife’s Singer sewing machine turned the analog clock.

Foster installed the scoreboard in the Dallas Center gym in time for Dallas Center’s first home game about a year later. Dallas Center won 28-10.

Foster quit his teaching job to make scoreboards full-time. He named his company Fair-Play Scoreboards.

By 1955, Fair-Play hit $1 million in sales. Today, the company, still headquartered on Delaware Avenue in Des Moines, has more than 100,000 operational scoreboards in the United States, from elementary schools to major pro sports venues, said Alex Gomez, spokesman for Fair-Play.

The company moved its manufacturing to suburban St. Louis when the company needed to expand capacity. (Missouri’s incentive package beat one assembled by Des Moines and Iowa officials.)

Still, the company remains incorporated in Iowa.

“We are dedicated to our Iowa roots,” Gomez said. “That is where our foundation and history is.”

So Tuesday, when the Dallas Center-Grimes basketball teams host Adel-DeSoto Minburn, fans from both sides will glance up at the scoreboard and know it was a crafty superintendent who helped everyone know the how much time was left.

Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or dafinney@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.

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