Today, let us find our light. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run,
and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Humphry Davy gave a famous series of lectures
on natural philosophy at the Royal Institution of
London starting just after 1800. Davy was
enormously influential, and he returned again and
again to the theme of light. Light and seeing were
scientific fixations in the first half of the 19th
century. That age produced dioramas, magic
lanterns, photography, the first electric lighting
(long before Edison), and public gas lighting.
Michael Faraday followed Davy in those lectures,
and, in the early 1820s, a young member of the
Royal Engineers, Lt. Thomas Drummond, watched him
do a demonstration. When Faraday turned an
oxygen-hydrogen flame on a lump of quicklime, the
heated lump emitted a brilliant light.
Drummond saw a new use for that fluky behavior.
Setting distant markers for surveyors could
radically improve the accuracy of geographic
surveys. In 1825, Drummond set a limelight marker
on a mountaintop near Belfast. It was so bright it
could be seen in Donegal county, sixty-six miles
By now Drummond's limelight has become our metaphor
for the glow of public approbation -- for being
seen. That metaphor took shape in 1837, when
limelight systems became sufficiently streamlined
that they could be moved into the theater.
Just before Davy's first lectures, the English had
begun obtaining domestic gas from coal and leaving
behind clean-burning coke. By 1837, all major
theaters were being lit by coal gas. After
thousands of years with little change, gas lighting
was now flooding stages with light -- far cheaper
than the old candelabras and lanterns. And that
created a craving for still more light.
Limelight finished the transformation of the
theater. It cast the light of high noon on stages.
Lenses and filters gave limelight the warmth it
lacked. It lasted until the new electric lighting
systems arrived in the late 1800s.
But limelight found other uses as well. The
military used it to illuminate enemies at night.
During the siege of Charleston, the Union Navy
focused limelight on Fort Sumter while they pounded
it into rubble. Ships found one another by night.
During the 1870s and '80s, workmen under the East
River dug the caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge by
By 1952, when Charlie Chaplin made the movie
Limelight, the word itself lingered
only as a metaphor. "Find your light," an old actor
tells the narrator in the play,
Fantastiks. That means seek the center
of the light that'll show you to the world. It
means, "Find that same limelight beam which first
cut through the night -- all the way from Belfast
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Penzel, F., Theatre Lighting Before
Electricity. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan
University Press, 1978.
Rees, T., Theatre Lighting in the Age of
Gas. London: The Society for Theatre
Beal, D., The Limelight. American Heritage of
Invention and Technology, Fall, 1997, pp.
For more on arc lights and early electric lighting
systems, see Episode 11.
From Electricity in Everyday
Life, 1904, provided by the Linda Hall
Picture of an unspecified type of stage lighting
(probably arc lighting) ca. 1904
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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