“In the Limelight” Origin – Quicklime Illumination

Curtain sliding open on stage, placing the star in the limelight.

Two hundred years ago, actors were literally “in the limelight.” Quicklime (calcium oxide), a chemical that once featured in naval warfare but today supports numerous industries like pulp and paper, was used to create limelight, a popular way to illuminate theater stages in the Nineteenth Century.

The Use of Limelight for Theater Illumination

Limelight was discovered in the early 1820s, when English inventor Goldsworthy Gurney developed a blowpipe that burned hydrogen and oxygen to produce a small but extremely high temperature flame. When he directed this flame toward calcium oxide, it emitted an aggressive white light. Such a thing was possible due to the high melting point of quicklime at 2570°C. This allowed the substance to emit light from the rapid vibration of atoms that resulted from the rising heat without wearing away at its physical structure.

The first practical use of limelight was carried out by Thomas Drummond, who was such a major pioneer of the white light that it is sometimes referred to as “Drummond’s Light.” He used limelight as a means to see in the often dark and stormy mountainous peaks atop Ireland’s mountains, the location of his surveying project at the time. With a limelight at the top of a mountain, Drummond reported that he could see the illumination from as far as 68 miles away.

After this time, limelight became common in theaters, first appearing in 1837. Such a pronounced light was highly desirable in theaters, since the alternative of dim gaslights created profound fire hazards. With the more powerful white light, it took fewer limelights—each consisting of a blowpipe with a quicklime cylinder at the end of the flame—to light up the theater. Traditionally, there was one limelight for the main stage, while others were used for purposes specific to the show, such as simulating sunlight and moonlight.

Disadvantages of Limelight and Its Downfall

Limelight, while better than past methods of stage lighting, was not without its challenges. One major downside was that each light needed continuous monitoring, with a worker adjusting the block of lime as it burned. In addition, while the amount of limelights on and around the stage was limited, they each still contained an open flame, posing a fire risk during every show, especially for the worker who had to remain in close contact with the extremely hot flame.

Golden figure is in the limelight.

Of course, none of this mattered after Thomas Edison produced the first practical light bulb in 1879. By the Twentieth Century, practically all limelights fell out of use in theaters throughout the world. Even though electric lighting became the standard in virtually all facets of society, people continue to use the expression “in the limelight,” referring to someone being the center of attention.

While it’s unnecessary to expose it to a flame for illumination today, quicklime does serve some practical industrial uses because of its high melting point. Specifically, it is used in iron and steelmaking, in which it is added to the furnaces to remove impurities from the produced metal. It is especially effective in removing phosphorus, sulfur, and silica, and, to a lesser extent, manganese. For their multifold industry purposes, ASTM C110-20 provides standard methods for the Physical Testing of Quicklime, Hydrated Lime, and Limestone.

Theater Lighting Today Supported by Standards

As for the theater, electric luminaires provide the performance and entertainment industries with lighting far superior to that ever granted by burning a white cylinder, with the variety of lighting types granting sufficient illumination or effects. American National Standards for the efficient and safe use of these lights are published by the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA). These documents include:

ANSI E1.9-2007 (R2017) – Reporting Photometric Performance Data for Luminaires Used in Entertainment Lighting

ANSI E1.32-2012 (R2012) – Guide for the Inspection of Entertainment Industry Incandescent Lamp Luminaires

ANSI E1.54-2015 – PLASA Standard for Color Communication in Entertainment Lighting

ANSI E1.48-2014 (R2019) – A Recommended Luminous Efficiency Function for Stage and Studio Luminaire Photometry

ANSI E1.11-2008 (R2018) – Entertainment Technology — USITT DMX512-A — Asynchronous Serial Digital Data Transmission Standard for Controlling Lighting Equipment and Accessories

ANSI E1.35-2013 (R2018) – Standard for Lens Quality Measurements for Pattern Projecting Luminaires Intended for Entertainment Use

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