The Houston Astrolite – a Marvel of Early Technology

I’ve started a list of things that should be in the Smithsonian Institution but aren’t. So far I’ve got one thing: the original scoreboard in the Houston Astrodome.

The Astrodome was the very first domed stadium anywhere in the world. I remember well when it opened and the formerly-named Houston Colts moved there. Houston was at the centre of the space age and “Astro” was a fitting name for the team and their futuristic dome.

The grand opening featured Judy Garland, whose act was opened by the Supremes, and an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. Mickey Mantle hit the very first ever home run indoors, and the Yankees went on to win 2-1.

In the early Astrodome days, the field had real grass, a special variety that grew well indoors. Then they discovered that the glare of the sun was causing problems for the outfielders, so they painted the glass, which caused the grass to die. So the first-ever artificial grass, Astroturf, was installed. Astroturf was so expensive they decided to only install a bit at a time, and ended up painting the dead grass around it green!

In other things Astro, the scoreboard—a gargantuan assembly four stories high and a football field wide—was installed, and they called it the Astrolite. It is hard to find any information on this piece of circuitry, but I was able to discover where it contained thousands of light bulbs of several different colours, forming a huge display driven by a control panel that took 6 people to operate. A Fitbit likely contains more electronics than it did, but for 1965 it was very advanced. It produced amazing pre-programmed animations, including a 40-second sequence than ran whenever the Astros hit a home run. It could also be programmed on the fly to mock opposing teams, with Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher a favoured target. (Durocher later turned the tables by becoming Astros manager and started using the scoreboard for his own messaging.)

I managed to find a few pictures of the control panel, so I then went searching for images of similar panels on computers of the day—IBM 360s, Digital Equipment 1130s and the like. None of their pictures looked anything like the Astrolite control. Then finally, I found out it was a custom job by Fair-Play, a manufacturer of scoreboards from Des Moines Iowa. No IBM or DEC computer, just their own custom console.

To my knowledge, only one Astrolite was ever manufactured, a truly unique computer. Then in 1988, it was taken down to make room for more seats. (It was so huge that it vacated enough space for 15,000 seats.) Alas, it will never make it to the Smithsonian, as it was simply hauled away to the scrap heap. Not that it would fit anyway, but it’s a shame that it wasn’t kept somewhere. I have no knowledge where the control panel went; it too likely suffered the same fate.

Which may in fact be the fate of the Astrodome itself. No longer used and condemned by the fire marshal, it’s a building the people of Houston are debating whether or not is worth fixing.

Click on the links below for videos of the Astrodome, filmed when it opened, and showing an interesting account of a building that was truly remarkable in its day, with glimpses of the Astrolite and its control panel. YouTube also has links showing the animations, which were very impressive in a day so long ago that the Supremes were still an opening act.

(Special thanks to my brother, Alban d’Entremont, Professor Emeritus at the University of Navarra, Spain and the biggest baseball fan in Europe, for his help in researching this topic.)

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