The Early History of Interscholastic Quizbowl

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The Early History of Interscholastic Quizbowl

Post by cchiego »

In the course of looking for previous academic competitions here in Philadelphia, I came across some interesting bits of history from College Bowl Valhalla.

"Quiz shows" in general, as anyone who has read the work of Salinger (or who's read Ken Jennings' "Brainiac") can probably attest, were fairly popular in the 1930s-1940s on the radio. But they seem to have been individual-level competitions rather than team-based. What I'm interested in figuring out is this: when were the first interscholastic quiz competitions held and how, if anything, did they lead into modern quizbowl?

There were some of these early quiz shows that focused primarily on students. In addition to Quiz Kids (Chicago, 1940), I found, for instance, a 1941 show called the "The Daily News Quiz Show of the Air" here in Philadelphia that involved local students being quizzed about various curriculum-based topics and which awarded $25 bonds to the winners (see p. 22 here). Some other bits and pieces from newspapers dating back into the 1930s suggest that there were quiz shows and competitions on college campuses involving professors, students, and community members, but again all seem to be individual rather than team based. There is also a suggestion that a "Trans-Atlantic Quiz" show during World War II involving might have originated the use of teams, but it seems to have primarily involved small "teams" of a couple of British or American people asking questionsof the other.

The College Bowl Valhalla people, using an interesting archive from the University of Oregon that has a collection of materials from an early Philadelphia-based radio host, have determined that a radio show called "Campus Quiz" that began in 1946 was the earliest example of interscholastic quizbowl. I added what I could find about Campus Quiz to the quizbowl wiki, but in short it seemed to involve students from local high schools competing on teams representing their schools at various locations in and around Philadelphia in two-team matches. Matches had three rounds: the first two rounds consisted of asking each team a set of directed questions, with points available in some cases for answering at least a certain number right and in other cases needing to get them all right to get points. The final round, dubbed the "Mental Alertness Round," seems to have featured the first use of speedcheck questions available to both teams. There was no buzzer system in use at the time, so participants seem to have had to shout out their answers before the other team based on what I could find. Winners and participants got all kinds of cool prizes, including a two-months supply of ice cream and other dairy products, theater tickets, airplane rides, "well-pedigreed" turkeys of various impressive weights, and a Wurlitzer jukebox for the winning team. I found a few photos that seem to confirm this did indeed exist and seemed pretty popular.

Campus Quiz seems to have lasted only one season, 1946-1947, and while a wide variety of schools played (including Central High School in Philadelphia, who may thus have the oldest--albeit non-continuous--team of any active quizbowl school in the US), there doesn't seem to have been any kind of a championship tournament setup. In 1948, neighboring Delaware County started its own radio show, Hi-Q, which very, very proudly claims to still be the oldest continuous academic competition in the United States (and which is decidedly still in a 1940s radio show mentality). Hi-Q seems to have started the odd tradition of 3-team matches (and perhaps the idea of directed "fanfare" questions rather than toss-ups), which still exists in various forms in Pennsylvania (unfortunately).

After this, the next big developments seem to be the start of College Bowl (1953), It's Academic (1961), the early Berry College tournaments in the 1970s, and (seemingly independently) everyone's least-favorite AUK-ful competition, Knowledge Bowl in the early 1970s (plus a huge spurt of others in the 1980s). But I'm primarily interested in the earlier period of the 1940s and before--were there any other interscholastic quiz competitions, especially at the high school level? I'd be very interested in any other information that people could find about this time period since otherwise I'll take to claiming Philadelphia as the birthplace of interscholastic quizbowl (as well as America, of course).

[Note: I'm putting this here rather than in the College History forum because it seems like high school interscholastic competition preceded college competition]
Chris C.
Past: UGA/UCSD/Penn
Current: Central Coast CA
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Re: The Early History of Interscholastic Quizbowl

Post by Mike Bentley »

It's Academic is later than you're interested in, but there's some history about the show in the introduction to the It's Academic Quiz Book: From "A" to "Z". I don't see it available for preview online, but I came across a copy in a library years ago.

I suspect that one area to explore could be Bible quizzes. Informally these go very far back and I suspect there were some forms of organized competition before the TV age.
Mike Bentley
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Adviser, Quizbowl Team at University of Washington
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Re: The Early History of Interscholastic Quizbowl

Post by bsmith »

Interscholastic team competition in the UK goes at least as far back as 1948 with Top of the Form. It ran on radio, then TV, until the 1980s, and its question formats still exist in Reach for the Top.

I am curious if student competition (as opposed to casual adult quizzes derived from parlor/pub games) could only arise in a media age. Early radio/TV quizzes involving students give the impression that parents and/or schools are "showing off" how bright their children are, rather than having the students competing for themselves. Would any of these quizzes be done without a significant audience?
Ben Smith
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