Certainly you've heard the expression (or a variation of) "You're in the limelight." Did you know that there was, in fact, such a thing?

In 1825, Michael Faraday, the famous English chemist and physicist, demonstrated that if an oxygen-hydrogen flame were directed against a piece of quicklime, the heated lime produced a brilliant yellowish light. Observing Faraday was a young member of the Royal Engineers, Sir Thomas Drummond. Drummond quickly surmised that this brilliant light would be useful if used in conjunction with land surveying. Later, he set a limelight marker atop a mountaintop near Belfast and it was so bright that it could be seen nearly sixty miles away. It wasn't long before enterprising individuals saw a more general use for these light sources and in 1839, Vauxhall Gardens in London was illuminated using limelights. By 1856 the first theatrical installation was put to use in London's Princesses Theater, where a lens was placed in front of the lime to produce a spot of bright light. A picture of an early limelight from London's Museum of the Moving Image, is shown below.

The limelight pictured above is from the early part of the 1900's. The oxygen and hydrogen are routed via tap-controlled pipes to a backward sloping nozzle from which the flame is directed against a cylinder of lime measuring roughly 1 1/4" by 1". The lime, which is the brownish cylindrical object, is at the focus of the lens. As the lime is heated, it is continually chipped away and in this picture, the operator is seen rotating it via a hand-operated knob. This allows a fresh surface on which the flame can be directed.

By 1860, the technique of limelight operation was well known, with the operator sitting atop bladders containing the oxygen and hydrogen and using his weight to control the pressure. Unfortunately, accidents were somewhat common and after London's Drury Lane Theater was burned to the ground as the result of a burst bag, iron cylinders were made mandatory.

The limelight was not exclusive to the world of theater. The military employed it for nighttime illumination of battlefields and in the siege of Charleston during the Civil War, the Union Navy focused limelights on Ft. Sumter while they pummeled it into rubble. The limelight also played a key role in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, where they provided light under the East River for workmen digging the caissons.

Sadly, the limelight fell into disuse as cheaper and more efficient lighting sources found their way onto the stage.

But, the word limelight remains with us today in metaphor.

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