Change-over to electricity


A great many experiments aimed at the development of a viable incandescent electric lamp were conducted during the 1840s. Electric currents were passed thorough strips of carbon and various high resistance metals, heating them till they glowed. No practical advances were evident, however, until 1878, when Joseph Swan in England made the first filament lamps with a carbon linear filament.

Soon after, in 1880, Thomas Edison sealed thin filaments of carbonized threads inside a glass bulb from which all air had been removed by a vacuum, and then passed an electric current through them. The voltage was steadily increased until the incandescent filament reached a stable, bright glow. The electric current kept the filament glowing for 40 hours. Although the melting point of carbon is quite high, 3,598 °C, the material is evaporated at a much lower temperature, and carbon filament lamps had to be operated at a low temperature in order to prolong their life. In took another three decades until the tungsten filament was developed, in 1909.

Edison was faster to register a patent on his lamp than Swan . Edison’s invention marked the dawn of electric lighting and the electric age.

Incandescent Theatre Lighting

One of the first lighting systems of incandescent bulbs fed by an electric power source was installed in the Savoy Theatre in London, which opened in October 1881. The electric power was generated by a giant steam engine of 120 horsepower, supplied by the German company Siemens and placed outside the theatre, and the entire theatre was illuminated with 1200 Swan incandescent bulbs. There were however serious technical problems, caused mainly by interruptions in the electricity supply, the result being that the lighting rose and fell during the performance with no relationship whatsoever to events on stage. Despite these teething problems the new lighting system was enthusiastically received by public and press alike.

The first performances at the Savoy were operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan, who even dedicated a song to the wonders of stage lighting. On December 1881, the ‘Times’ wrote: “An interesting experiment was made at a performance of ‘Polience’ yesterday afternoon, when the stage was for the first time lit up by the electric light … The success of the new mode of illumination was complete … the effect was pictorially superior to gas.”

Like many innovations, the installation of electric systems in theatres was accompanied by suspicion on the part of the audience which, remembering the mishaps and fires caused by gaslight systems, feared that electrical systems were not safe enough. D’Oyly Carte, manager of the Savoy Theatre, came on stage and enveloped an electric lamp with a piece of highly inflammable muslin. He then broke the glass, demonstrating how the vacuum killed the flame immediately without even singeing the muslin.

The manager of the Olympic Theatre was less certain of the fidelity of this new invention, and announced to the audience that the theatre did not completely trust either electricity or gas, and undertook that every evening, in every corner of the theatre, there would also be oil lamps!

Nevertheless by the turn of the century nearly all theatres in Europe and the US had replaced their now obsolete gaslight with new electric systems, and the use of gas in the theatre was forbidden by the authorities.

Effect of Electric Light on the Theatre

The light generated by the filament lamp was even stronger than that of gaslight, and its introduction into the theatre had a major influence on both scenery and makeup, since every tiniest detail of scenery or makeup was now glaringly visible.

In many theatres the existing gaslighting apparatus was refurbished. In this theatre, old borderlights, winglights and footlights were fitted with electric lamps instead of the obsolete gas burners and the rotating color cylinders, which had been used in the gaslight period, were retained. Many theatres maintained the old configuration of the gaslight systems well into the 20th century.

The transition from gaslight to electric light was significant not only because of the intensity and the quality of the light of the incandescent bulb, but also due to the inherent potential electricity has for more precise control of light intensities. On December 29, 1881, the ‘Times’ wrote: “The ordinary electric apparatus has the great drawback for stage representation that the flame can not be lowered or increased at will, there being no medium between full light and total darkness”. But the writer continues to state that this difficulty has been successfully overcome by “interposing into the circuit through which the lamp receives the current what in technical language is called a ‘resistance’…” – a fair description of the first electrical dimmers in the theatre. This method of dimming by resistance was used for years, side by side with other methods, all of which were eventually replaced by the electronic dimmer.

Early Light Bulb:
This 16W incandescent Edison lamp dates from the late 19th century.
 Providing about 3 lumens per watt the total light output of this lamp is
approximately 50 lumens. The lamp life is rated at 1200 hours.

The Edison lamp

Changeover from Gas to Electricity:

In 1887 the lighting system of the Paris Opera was upgraded to electric lighting. Light bulbs were installed in the sockets of the obsolete gas burners replacing each gas jet with an electric incandescent bulb.

The Opera de Paris electrical lighting system

Electrical Power Supply:
Alternating power was generated for the light bulbs while the batteries that fed the electrical carbon-arc lights were charged with direct current.

Electrical power room at the cellar of the Paris opera in 1887.

A late 19th century technical drawing of salt-water dimmers:
The salt-water dimmer employed liquid instead of a resistance wire to control the voltage and thus the light intensity. 
It consisted of a container filled with water and an electrolyte, such as salt or diluted sulfuric acid. One electrode was fixed at the bottom of the container and the other electrode was attached to the piston that was operated by tracker wire and pulleys.

A late 19th century technical drawing of salt-water dimmers

A fully operative reconstruction:

Visitors are invited to fade a light bulb by moving the handle.

A fully operative reconstruction

Lighting Control Board at the Paris Opera in 1887:
The dimmer board at the Paris Opera was located below the stage, close to the prompt box, from where the board operators got their cues to execute the light changes.

The dimmer board

Adolphe Appia(1862-1928):a Visionary of Modern Stage Lighting
A Swiss stage designer whose theories, especially on the interpretive use of lighting,helped bring a new realism and creativity to 20th-century theatrical production.

Appia studied theatre in Dresden and Vienna from the age of 26.
In 1891 he propounded his revolutionary theories of theatrical production. Four yearslater he published La Mise en scטne du drame Wagnיrien (1895; “The Staging of the Wagnerian Drama”), a collection of stage and lighting plans for 18 of Wagner’s operas that clarified the function of stage lighting and enumerated in detail practical suggestions for the application of his theories.

In Die Musik und die Inszenierung (1899; “Music and Staging”), Appia established a hierarchy of ideas for achieving his aims:

(1) a three-dimensional setting rather than a flat, dead, painted backdrop as a proper background to display the movement of the living actors;
(2) lighting that unifies actors and setting into an artistic whole, evoking an emotional response from the audience;
(3) the interpretive value of mobile and colorful lighting, as a visual counterpart of the music;
(4) lighting that spotlights the actors and highlights areas of action. Appia designed sets in Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland. He also designed sets for La Scala opera house in Milan and for the opera house at Basel.

Adolphe Appia

Lighting by Appia for ‘ Tristan and Isolde ‘:
Sketch for the 1923 Milan production of ‘ Tristan and Isolde’. Appia endeavoured to use a single torch to light the beginning of the 2nd Act. The lighting created a misty, grim atmosphere with the scenery, which was hardly discernible, becoming gradually perceptible as the audience vision adapts to the low lighting level.

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