Gaslight era


The first great revolution in stage lighting began in England with the introduction of gas lighting. In 1804, F. A. Winsor, an entrepreneur, took out a patent on a lighting apparatus based on gas. An English engineer, William Murdock, towards the end of the 18th century, had developed this practical method, which used coal gas for illumination. Interestingly enough, the first public demonstration, which Winsor gave of his new gaslight, was held in July 1804 at a theatre – the London Lyceum. At first, gaslight was used only for illumination of the facade and entrances of the theatre.

Although the advantages of this new and powerful light source were obvious, it was thirteen years before gaslight was adopted on the stage of the Lyceum in August 1817.

The Lyceum was not the first theatre to introduce gaslight onto its stage – the Olympic Theatre preceded the Lyceum by introducing gaslight in October 1815.

The Advent of Gaslighting

The impact of gaslight on stage was dramatic and impressed the public and press of the period alike. The following account, given by Leigh Hunt, editor and critic at the Examiner, describes the possibilities inherent in gas lighting. After watching gaslit performances at the Covent Garden and the Drury Lane theatres, he wrote on September 7, 1818: “… can promise our readers much satisfaction with the gas-light, which is introduced not only in front of the stage, but at various compartments on each side: their effect, as they appear suddenly from the gloom, is like the striking of day light …”.

The gaslight installation included footlights and winglights, but lacked lighting from above, on which Hunt commented: “… if the front light could be thrown, as daylight is, from above instead of below the effect would be perfect”.

The use of gaslight in the theatre spread rapidly over Europe. In 1832, the Comedie Francaise installed an extensive gaslight system, yet the use of oil lamps as footlights persisted well into the second half of the 19th century since the Comedie Francaise actors objected to the blinding glare of gaslight as footlights.

Gaslight was soon adopted in American theatres too. The Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia was illuminated by a gas light system as early as 1816. An advertisement in the Aurora in November 1816 claimed this to be the first application of gaslighting in theatre in America and boasted that the lighting system was both safe and brilliant. The Chestnut Theatre burnt down only four years later, on April 1820, one of the first causalities of the new system. Nonetheless, theatres in Baltimore, Boston and in New Orleans soon followed suit and introduced gaslight to their stages.

Theatrical Lighting in the Gas Era

Gaslight in the theatre was revolutionary and this new technology influenced both the style and the aesthetics of theatrical lighting. Not only was gaslight very bright, it could also be controlled from a distance, using a system of valves which controlled the flow of gas into the various pipes – a primitive but effective dimming system. And for the first time light could be projected onto the stage from new angles, as different types of theatrical gaslighting instruments were developed: footlights, winglights, borderlights, groundrows, lengths, standards and bunch lights.

Limelights, although relying on a different technology, were regularly used concurrently with the gaslighting system.

Colored light was achieved by what was called a ‘medium’ – transparent colored cloth (cotton, wool, or silk), stretched over wire guards and placed in front of the naked gas jets. These mediums were made up into cylinders of color media, which were rotated, gradually changing the color of the light. The general lighting of the stage was usually white, and two standard color schemes were used for effects: orange or red for sunrise or sunset, and blue or green for a moonlit night. A moon effect was created by a lighting apparatus called a ‘moon box’.

The effective use of dimming and of color changing enabled the creation of impressive dramatic and atmospheric effects to enhance the action on stage. A prompt script of the Sadler’s Wells company from 1852 includes instructions for operation of the lighting and descriptions of the intensity required for each scene. A description of the transition from moonlight to daylight specifies the colors that were used in front of the various lighting instruments.

These technological innovations opened endless new artistic possibilities for lighting, but alsoinfluenced other aspects of stage design. Scenic designers had to take into consideration the effect of strong illumination on painted elements, and accordingly to find new materials and develop new methods. The intensity and the whiter quality of gaslight also dictated a new style of makeup.

Improvements in gaslighting technology in the late 19th century increased the possibilities of artistic stage lighting. Towards the close of the 19th century the new Welsbach burner was introduced. It had a wire mesh mantle over the open gas flame, and as the mesh incandesced it emitted an extremely powerful white light. The pilot light, which had remained burning even when the main gas flame was extinguished in order to enable relighting the flame, was now replaced by an electric spark ignitor. This, for the first time, enabled the auditorium to be darkened completely during the performance.

A typical arrangement of stage lighting instruments included gas burners protected by wire guards at both sides of the stage providing sidelights, gas wings and ladders. In addition, gas battens, or border lights hung over the stage. Gas footlights were used at the front of the stage. All of these burners were controlled by a ‘Gasman’ at his ‘gas table’, who changed the lighting in accordance with instructions received from the stage manager.

The limelights were located on proscenium perches and on stage tower galleries, each with its operator.

Limelights and Arclights

In the first part of the 19th century gaslight was used in the theatre mainly in order to wash the stage with diffused light. The use of focused, concentrated light became possible when in 1825 a Scotsman named Drummond invented the limelight. Limelight used oxygen mixed with hydrogen in order to heat a block of limestone to incandescence, producing intense and very white light. A reflector shaped the light into a narrow, condensed beam, and later a lens was added to further concentrate the beam.

It was some time before Drummond’s invention was adopted in the theatre. Apparently, the first instance in which limelight was used on stage was at Covent Garden in 1837-1838, during a pantomime season. As each limelight required a separate, dedicated operator, limelights were extremely expensive to run, and so were restricted for special effects of a colored beam of light or a strong concentrated light.

Later, the limelight principle was incorporated into wide-angle floodlight instruments, extending the use of limelight to washing large areas of the stage.

Although the electric arc was invented as early as 1809 by Andrי M. Ampיre (1775 -1836), it was many years before it was adapted for theatrical use. It was only in 1846 that electric arc lights were introduced into the Paris Opera.

An electric arc is created when two electrodes are brought close to one another for a brief moment. When they are about to touch, a spark is generated, creating a ‘short circuit’ and an incandescent area of about 4000°C, which serves as the light source in arc lights. Carbon-arcs used carbon rods about 20cm long, had reflectors and lenses to condense the beam, and put out immensely brilliant illumination. However, there were drawbacks. These lights were noisy, the light flickered and, like the limelight, they needed the constant attention of a dedicated operator for each arclight.

The arclight could be used both for floodlighting and for spotlighting, and had a sliding shutter between the light source and the lens which served to dim the light. Huge electric batteries installed in the stage basement supplied electricity.

Gaslight, limelight and the carbon arc were used in theatre throughout most of the 19th century, until introduction of the carbon-filament electric lamp which marked the end of the use of coal gas as a source of light in the theatre.


Until the advent of gas lighting, most of the acting took place at the front of he stage, with the scenery on the main stage providing a background for the performers. This was more than a theatrical concept or stylistic preference. The front of the stage was where the footlights and the bright auditorium chandeliers supplied adequate illumination, in contrast to the dimly lit scenic area.

In the age of gaslight, with the development of lighting positions above the stage and the use of much brighter light, the separation of stage lighting from the auditorium lighting was possible. This, in turn, allowed for the integration of the actors and the scenery. Now the actors could be placed behind the proscenium, performing on a set rather than in front of it. Once the distinction between auditorium and stage lighting systems was made it was possible to extinguish the auditorium sun burner chandelier during the performance. The custom of darkening the auditorium became customary by the end of the 19th century.

Gas Lighting in the 19th Century:
This conjectural backstage view of the Theatre Royal Leicester includes gas wing lights, a gas borderlight, as well as front of house gas bracketson the balcony front.

This gas lantern employs the Argand burner principle: gas flows through a pierced ring-shaped burner, so that the heat, which accumulates in the center of the ring, accelerated the airflow through the glass chimney, improving the flow of oxygen. This creates a brighter flame with less soot.

Theatre Royal Leicester 

A late 19th century gas wing light

A view from a side technical gallery shows a gas fixture used for
backstage crossover light. A wire mantle protects the scenery
from the flame.
Gas light with “Bat Tail” burner and a wire flame protection mantle.

General Illumination Gas Fixture and Backstage Gas Lighting


A Limelight Operator on the Fly-Floor (An Illustration from 1874)

The limelight operator uses an open face limelight to floodlight the stage
below. Gas could escape from the bag if pressure was uneven, a hazard,
which could cause explosions. A weights is therefore used to maintain 
even pressure.
The limelight operator’s assistant manipulates the weight to ensure a 
steady gas flow. When needed he would exert his own weight by standing
on the board.

A limelight operator

A limelight – the first theatrical spotlight:

The Scottish engineer Drummond invented the limelight in 1816. He used a core of limestone (calcium) that was heated to incandescence by a burning mixture of oxygen and hydrogen. The incandescent limestone provided very brilliant light that could be directed and focused.

The limelight was first employed in the theatre in 1855 and became widely used by the 1860s. Its intensity made it useful for spotlighting and for the realistic simulation of effects such as sunlight and moonlight. It could also be used for general stage illumination. The greatest disadvantage of the limelight was that it required constant attention of an individual operator, who had to keep adjusting the block of limestone as it burned and to tend to the gas that fuelled it.

A limelight

Miscellaneous Gas Lighting Implements and Accessories:
1. Limestones.
 2. Gas lighter.
 3. Gas container complete with bag and pressure weights.
 4. Gas pressure gauges, gas valves and regulators.

Gas Lighting Implements

Blow- Through Limelight Burners:
The oxygen and hydrogen gases were mixed at the burner. Different type 
burners had different orifices. Common burner types were: blow-through jet,
mixed gas jet and Gwyer jet.

These blow-through burners date from the middle of the 19th century.

Sunrise Effect using Electric Arc:

Electric carbon-arcs were used at the Paris Opera since the first half of
the 19th century.

This is a rendering of the sunrise effect in a production of Le Prophete.

A Late 19Th-Century Electrical Arc-Light Mechanism:
Electric Carbon-Arc lights were widely used in street and outdoors lighting as well as in factories and theatres. When arc-lights were introduced, in the first half of the 19th century, there use was restricted since electricity supply was by large, cumbersome batteries which could maintain light only for a short time span.

The 19th century electric arc produced bright, cold and flickering light. Technical improvements in the beginning of the 20th century rendered it a useful and powerful light source for follow-spots and film projectors.

Electrical Arc-Light

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