One of the workshops I attended today was entitled “Gaslights to LED.” Given by Chuck Davis and Marc “Flounder” Hurst of Disney’s Creative entertainment division, this workshop explored how a progression in theatrical technology has fueled the development and the growth of the spectacle.
Briefly at the beginning, they reviewed the early progression of theater lighting. Having done some preliminary research I’ve attached a brief history of lighting before electricity in PDF form.
The class was intriguing, but concentrated on the development of Disney, rather than the industry itself. That being said, Disney is responsible for many technologies that are used in the entertainment industry today. My favorite example which could be considered a very crude lighting instrument is the digitalization of their fireworks show. A man named Mickey Aaronson created and used the first ever electric-firing firework show in 1956. Prior to this, setting each fireball off with torches was the norm, and this achievement help to make fireworks more predictable, more complex, and most of all, safer. Later, Disney went even further in firework technology by creating the pneumatic launch system. In an effort to create fewer emissions and debris from firework shows, fireworks are now thrust into the air with, you guessed it, air! All shows in Disney parks use this system to great success.
I could go on about the different technical achievements that Disney has pioneered. In the Magic Kingdom, Cinderella’s castle contains 250,000 LED lights as part of their evening show. What I took away was this; Disney is on the forefront of theater technologies, and they are helping to make the spectacles larger, better, and magical.

Lastly, I’m attaching a time-line of lighting fixtures of the past.

Theater Lighting Before Electricity

A Time-line

• Lighting cues seem to have been written into Greek plays – the festivals played from sunup to sunset, and many of the lines refer to times of day.
• 1545:
Sabastiano Serlio — colored light liquids in bottles (red wine, saffron (yellow), ammonium chloride in a copper vessel (blue).
Brightly-polished barber basin and a round bottle as a lens
o 3 qualities of light: distribution, intensity, color defined
• 1550:
Leone de Somi – full illumination for happy scenes, but tragedy much darker (candles, crude oil lamps, torches, and cressets (hanging lamps).
Stagehands walked around and snipped wicks, the audience was lit
Candles were of tallow and fat
• 1638:
Nicola Sabbatini – writes book on theatre – suggests system of dimmers lowering metal cylinders over the candles
Giacomo da Vignola – ideal lighting angle is along the diagonal of a cube
(1930’s – Stanley McCandless writes it in book)
• 1783:
Candles ruled the day till the invention in 1783 in France of the kerosene lamp with adjustable wick
o Followed closely with a glass chimney – could make individual float lights
Used for 100 years
• 1791:
Illuminating gas produced in quantity – William Murdock – each building could produce its own
However, gas required constant attention and wasn’t easy to control
• 1803:
Invented by Henry Drummond – heating a piece of lime with a flame of oxygen and hydrogen (for a followspot or to indicate sunlight). A green-ish tint.
o Was used as the first spotlight in Paris Opera houses
• 1845:
Drury Lane Theatre is the first to use gas in England)
• 1809:
Electric Arc — discovered by Sir Humphry Davy (or here) — took 90 years to be fully accepted.
• 1816:
First fully gas lighted theatre — Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia
Greater control of and more brightness (colorsilk cloth or woven cotton).
Increased heat and many fires caused, and had gas smell and green-ish tint.
• 1878-1898:
Henry Irving (and click here) (England) initiated lighting rehearsals, transparent lacquers of colored class to limelight with electricity to incandescents, footlights of different colors and broken into sections, and wanted to dim the house lights
• 1841:
First incandescent lamp patent – Edison – not practical
• 1846:
The first electric carbon arcs used as spotlights at the Paris opera – inefficient — not a serious threat to limelight
• 1879:
The Jablachkoff candle – the first useful light bulb – “electric candle” – used at Paris Hippodrome – a carbon arc (invented 40-50 years earlier, but limelight was too ingrained, even well into the 1920’s.
The first practical electric spotlight
• 1881:
Savoy Theatre in England – the first completely electric theatre