Romance of the Chains

A potential game-changing event in a football game is determined with two sticks connected by a chain. Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images. Source:

Recently as I was lying in my easy chair on the back deck, wafting in and out of consciousness in the glorious summertime weather that is the Bay Area, I caught myself thinking about moments in a football game that are unlike any in other sports. One such moment is the measurement.

The first down is the immediate goal of nearly every offensive play in a football game. The more I thought about how football deals with confirming whether or not a first down has been made by the offensive team when the umpire cannot readily make the determination himself, the more I thought how utterly odd it is. The chain, which connects two poles, is something that people hundreds if not thousands of years ago could have used to measure a specific distance. 

With all of today’s high-tech gadgetry, we still use the caveman’s solution, which is why there is sometimes unrivaled drama as the chain crew walk out to the middle of the field to make an important measurement late in the fourth quarter.

Johnny U watches a measurement in the 1959 NFL Championship Game. Photo by Jo DiPaola, Jr. SOURCE:

As John Branch wrote at the end of last year on, “since 1906, football teams have needed to gain 10 yards for a first down. From the sideline, far from the action, two sticks connected by a chain have measured the required distance, their placement estimated by eyesight.”

Branch’s article quoted the NY Giants’ president John Mara as saying “There’s a certain amount of drama that is involved with the chains… Yes, it is subject to human error, just like anything else is. But I think it’s one of the traditions that we have in the game, and I don’t think any of us have felt a real compelling need to make a change.”

It made me think of how much the game of soccer has come under ridicule for its resistance to technology, and how much of that ridicule has come from casual watchers in the U.S. who prefer the American form of the game. Yes, here in America we have video technology available to game officials to make certain calls, but we also accept the routine use of two sticks connected with a chain to determine if a first down has been made, one of the parts of a football game that can have a monumental impact on the outcome.


I had recently read a couple of wonderfully odd posts on the blog Uni Watch: The Obsessive Study of Athletics Aesthetics. It was an odd post because it had nothing to do with the visual history of sports design (one of my favorite subjects – uniforms, logs, and the like), which is why I read that blog. Instead, the post was a quasi-history of the measurements for first downs and some of the rather odd contraptions invented to make those measurements in ways different that the tried and sometimes not-so-true two poles connected with a 10-yard chain.

The old World Football League pushed the envelope on several fronts, including the measurement for first downs. Photo source: Game Balls (

Paul Lukas in his post titled “How Hard Can It Be To Measure Ten Yards” lists five different first down measurement devices that are distinct from the chain gang. The most famous was the Dicker-rod (please, hold the comments, but if you must…) invented by George Dicker, an aerospace and automotive engineer from Orange County in California who in 1960  according to the post was watching a college game played on a muddy field causing difficulty in the measurements for first downs by the chain gang. The device was patented in 1973 (see it here courtesy of Lukas’ post), and the following year was used in the World Football League (WFL) that lasted only a little more than a season (If I remember correctly, players’ pants were colored differently according to their played position).

According to Wikipedia, the Dicker-rod was a device “two and a half yards (90 inches) long. If a ball was placed on the 23 yard line, a marker would be placed 2 yards up the rod at the 25 yard line. Then, in order to measure whether a first down was attained, the dicker rod would be laid down at the 35 yard line, and the spot of the ball would be measured against the marker on the rod, which would now be at the 33 yard line, 2 yards away from the 35 yard line.”

Paul Lukas in his post titled “Up Pere-Scope!” details the invention by Lou Peresenyi who formerly taught at St. Mary’s College just 5 miles down the road from where I was drifting in and out of consciousness. The Pere-Scope appears to be something like a surveyor’s tool that was actually used in some games according to Peresenyi who eventually received a patent for the device (see Lukas’ post for links to the patent and some photographs of the scope in actual use). And, it made its big-time debut at the 1955 East-West Shrine Game at Kesar Stadium in San Francisco.

John Branch’s article in the NYTimes discusses laser systems that have been patented including one by Alan Amron of Long Island that is a “sophisticated laser system” that was presented to the NFL’s competition committee. Branch writes that Amron’s invention would use lasers “permanently mounted into stadium lights” and “a green line — visible to players, coaches and fans in the stadium, and to television viewers — would be projected onto the field to mark the line for a first down.” The NFL didn’t bite.

Now, Amron and his company, First Down Laser Systems, has a patent for a laser system embedded into the actual sticks attached to the chains with a built-in gyroscope and automatic level to keep the beams pointed straight. Amron hopes to revisit the NFL with his revised concept.


In the post chronicling the various inventions, Lukas notes that when the commissioner of the California Collegiate Athletic Association was asked once upon a time about the Dicker-rod, one of the problems was identified as the public missing the “drama of the chain measurement.” Lukas’ take on this is that “a gadget may be more precise…, but it can’t possibly deliver the entertainment value of a chain gang measurement. Which is no doubt why the chain gang, despite all these attempts to build a better mousetrap, remains the gold standard.”

Lukas writes in his post on the Pere-Scope that “It’s interesting that the NFL, for all its high-tech radio helmets and instant replay, for all its control freakitude, has stuck with something as old-school and inexact as the chain gang. Imperfect as it is, it’s one of my favorite aspects of the game. Here’s hoping it never gets superseded by a gadget.”

I’m surprising myself here – I tend to agree.

What about you?

Tags: , , , , , ,

One response to “Romance of the Chains”

  1. tk says :


%d bloggers like this: