'Limelight' refers to old-style lighting system

In both the May 6 Tidings and the May 7 Tribune the device "limelight" was mentioned, in a review and in a headline. What is a limelight and when and where was/is it used? What color is it?

— Richard H., Ashland

That word has popped up a few times in the local papers recently, and Bill Varble offered a concise definition in a May 17 review of Southern Oregon University's production of "Wild Oats."

The play actually features faux limelights, 19th-century stage lights that produced brilliant white illumination until electric lights came along later in the century, Varble explained.

While his description is as crisp and bright as the light from the historic theater lighting, here's a bit more background the theater, history and chemistry experts at Since You Asked dug up from the Encyclopedia Britannica and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which maintains a chemistry website called scifun.org.

A Scottish engineer, Thomas Drummond, studied the light given off when lime, (the common name for calcium oxide) is heated to extremely high temperatures in jets of burning oxygen and hydrogen.

The light could be focused and directed, so it was initially used in surveying and lighthouses.

Covent Garden Theater in London was the first to employ limelight on the stage in 1837, but it was widely used in theaters around the world by 1860.

In 1881, London's Savoy Theatre became the first stage lit with electric lights and soon limelight's turn as the spotlight faded.

The phrase "in the limelight" has remained, though, indicating someone or something that attracts attention in a prominent public position, just like the performers of yesteryear.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

Share This Story