History of darts
While it is generally recognized that the game of darts was developed somewhere in England during the Middle Ages, the details of its inception are somewhat murky. The most widely vehiculated narrative has it that an early version was played by English archers as early as the 14th century when several royal decrees made archer training mandatory. Probably bored by the constant target shooting which wasn’t providing a challenge anymore, the longbowmen decided instead to throw their arrows as a means of fun competition.
The game quickly took to the indoors of taverns and pubs, and to fit this new environment, the arrows had to be shortened. For a target, the bottom of an overturned beer (ale) or wine barrel was commonly used. There is an interesting etymological association between “butt,” the word the bottom side of a barrel was referred by at the time, and the use it got for the game of darts, since “butt” originated as an archery term, from the French “butte,” meaning “target.”
The bottom of a wine barrel is not the best thing to constantly throw sharp objects at if you want it to keep using it for holding liquids, so as the game increased in popularity the first “dedicated” dart targets begun to appear.
Initially, these were nothing more than horizontally cut cross-sections of a tree trunk, with the growing rings serving as aiming markers. Cracks in the wood further divided the target into “slice” section, which can be recognized as the ancestors of today’s radius lines.
The game didn’t keep to taverns and pubs, however, and it appears that by 1530 it gained enough of a status to be played by royalty. We are told that around this date King Henry the VIIIth might have been gifted a highly ornate set of darts from his wife-to-be Anne Boleyn as a means to curry favor.
Being a popular indoors pastime, one that could be played inside cramped ships passing the Atlantic Ocean, darts took little time in reaching the American continent. There is even a possibility that the Pilgrims who left England on board the Mayflower in 1620 might have played it on their journey to Plymouth.
Like with most other sports, darts experienced fast development during the 19th century, and as the 1900s came about, the rules and mechanics of the game would have been fairly familiar to a modern player.
The present-day numbering system and dart board layout are attributed to the carpenter Brian Gamlins of Lancashire, who in 1896 decided upon a randomized way of numbering the target sections, with the 20 at the top, followed clockwise by 1; 18 and so forth. This was aimed at rewarding accuracy, since the point value was more or less evenly spread throughout the area of the board, making players that would otherwise concentrate upon a single high-value section receive fewer point returns (the bullseye still remained the highest score, however)
Many other layouts have been tried since the number of possible combinations ranges in the billions, but Gamlins’ system is still recognized as assuring the closest to a random distribution as feasible. Furthermore, it is widespread enough to ensure it won’t get replaced anytime soon. Sadly, Gamlins himself died in 1903, before he could patent his innovation.
By this date, the dart was somewhat standardized as consisting of a 4-inch wooden shaft called the barrel, with the head reduced to a metal point and feathers being used on the opposite end for stability. The first paper folded dart was patented in America in 1898 while the metal shaft was introduced in 1906 in England.
Somewhat surprising for today’s dart enthusiast, the sport’s status as a game of skill was put into question in England at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1908, a Leeds pub owner by the name of Foot Anakin was taken to court for allegedly allowing a game of chance, as darts was classified at the time, to be played in his establishment. He offered to prove that darts was indeed a game of skill by hitting the 20 area 3 times in a row, which he did, challenging any member of the court to repeat his feat.
Upon one of the court clerks being incapable of making the same shots, darts was ruled to be a “game of skill,” which served to further increase its popularity. During this time, darts competitions were localized events, with many establishments sponsoring their team to take part in ad-hoc inter-pub tournaments.
A National Darts Association (NDA) was founded in 1924 in London, serving to further regulate and standardize the sport, which by 1927 was established enough for the first big competition to take place. The “News of The World Individual Darts Championship” was organized by the NDA and sponsored by the eponymous Sunday newspaper, which offered substantial prizes. For its first stage, it drew 1000 participants exclusively from the metropolitan area of London, and by 1930 the Championship had national reach.
Darts championships grew to attract as many as 280,000 participants by 1939, and after a brief hiatus in organized activities during WWII, the National Darts Association of Great Britain was formed in 1954.
The NDAGB was to make darts into a televised event by 1962 when the first final was televised by Westward TV. Thanks to the introduction of split-screen technology during the 1970s and ‘80s, which allowed viewers to watch both the board and the player at the same time, the popularity of darts skyrocketed throughout the British Isles into the level it enjoys today.