When it comes to stage lighting and the lights used in nightclubs, stage lighting and street decoration, the fluorescent light has been exceptionally common since the development of the conventional light tube in the 1920s.
Before the fluorescent light, and indeed before electric lighting of any kind, stages were lit in several fascinating ways, one of which was so ubiquitous in the century before the light tube that the term is still used today to describe a public figure.
The limelight was initially discovered by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney in the 1820s when testing out his oxy-hydrogen burner. When he placed a piece of quicklime (calcium oxide) on the superhot flame, it produces a bright white light.
Initially, this was seen as a chemical curiosity, but when Michael Faraday demonstrated the effect, an engineer by the name of Thomas Drummond realised that the light could be used for surveying, which he would eventually show with his prototype lamp in 1826.
A decade later, juggler and magician Ching Lau Lauro was performing on Herne Bay Pier in Kent at a night show on the 3rd October 1836 to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone of the Herne Bay Clock Tower.
In order to ensure that his show was visible, he opted to use limelight, then described as “koniaphostic light”, which illuminated his show with a powerful white light.
As with nearly every detail of Professor Ching’s life, some details remain unknown, such as whether this was the first use or simply the first known use of limelight in a performance, but the concept endured and would become the standard form of illumination for 50 years.
It was first used at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1837 and during a time when light bulbs could barely illuminate themselves, let alone an entire stage, they established a lot of the conventions we associate with lighting today.
Not only could the lighting cover the whole stage, but it could be focused on individual performers, creating the concept of the spotlight that is an essential part of performance today and creating the still-used term “in the limelight”.