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Gas lighting in theatres

It took many years of development and testing before gas lighting for the stage would be commercially available for use in theatres. Gas technology would then be installed in just about every major theatre in the world. However, lighting with means of gas would be short lived because the invention of the electric light bulb would be soon to follow.

It would take close to two hundred years for gas to become accessible for commercial use. A Flemish alchemist, Jan Baptista van Helmont was the first person to formally recognize gas as a state of matter. He would go on to identify several types of gasses including carbon dioxide. Over one hundred years later in 1733, Sir James Lowther had some of his miners working on a water pit for his mine. While digging the pit they hit a pocket of gas. Lowther took some sample of the gas and took it home to do some experiments. He noted "The said air being put into a bladder…and tied close, may be carried away, and kept some days, and being afterwards pressed gently through a small pipe into the flame of a candle, will take fire, and burn at the end of the pipe as long as the bladder is gently pressed to feed the flame, and when taken form the candle after it is so lighted, it will continue burning till there is no more air left in the bladder to supply the flame."(Penzel 28) Lowther had basically discovered the principle behind gas lighting.

Later in the eighteenth Century William Murdoch would state: "the gas obtained by distillation from coal, peat, wood and other inflammable substances burnt with great brilliancy upon being set fire to … by conducting it through tubes, it might be employed as an economical substitute for lamps and candles." (Penzel 29) Murdoch’s first invention was a lantern with a gas-filled bladder attached to a jet. He would use this to walk home at night. After seeing how well this worked he decided to light his home with gas. In 1797, Murdoch would install gas lighting into his new home as well as the workshop in which he worked. “This work was of a large scale, and he next experimented to find better ways of producing, purifying, and burning the gas.”(Penzel 30) The foundation had been laid for companies to start producing gas and other inventors to start playing with ways of using the new technology. This new technology would quickly find its way to the stage.

In the 19th century gas stage lighting would go from a crude experiment to the most popular way of lighting theatrical stages. In 1804, Frederick Albert Windsor, a German, first demonstrated the way to use gas to light the stage in London at the Lyceum Theatre. Although the demonstration and all the lead research were being done in London, “in 1816 at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia was the earliest gas lit theatre in world” (Wilson,362). In 1817 the Lyceum, Drury Lane, and Covent Garden theatres were all lit by gas. Gas would be brought into the building by “Miles of rubber tubing from outlets in the floor called 'water joints' carried the gas to border-lights and wing lights". But before it was distributed, the gas came through a central distribution point called a “gas table”. (Sellman 15) The gas table was how the brightness could be “varied by regulating the gas supply, and the gas table, which allowed control of separate parts of the stage, became the first stage 'switchboard'". (Pilbrow 174).

By the 1850s gas lighting in theatres had spread practically all over the United States and Europe. Some of the largest installations of gas lighting would be in large auditoriums, like the Theatre de Chatelet, built in 1862 (Penzel 69). In 1875 the new Paris Opera was constructed. “Its lighting system contained more than twenty-eight miles of gas piping, and its gas table had no fewer than eighty-eight stopcocks, which controlled nine hundred and sixty gas jets.” (Penzel 69) The theatre that used the most gas lighting was the Astley’s Equestrian Amphitheatre in London. According to the Illustrated London News “Everywhere white and gold meets the eye, and about 200,000 gas jets add to the glittering effect of the auditorium…such a blaze of light and splendour has scarcely ever witnessed, even in dreams.” (Penzel 69)

Theatres were switching over to gas lighting not just because it was more economical than using candles but also required less labor to operate. With gas lighting, theatres would no longer need to have people tending to candles during a performance, or having to light each candle individually. “It was easier to light a row of gas jets than a greater quantity of candles high in the air.” (Pilbrow 174). Theatres also no longer need to worry about wax dripping on the actors during a show.

Gas lighting also had an effect on the actors. The actors now could use less make-up and their motions did not have to be as exaggerated. The reasoning for this was because the stage was now brighter than it had ever been before. What had once been on half-lit stages was now on in fully lit stages. Production companies were so impressed with the new technology that some would go as far to say, “This light is perfect for the stage. One can obtain gradation of brightness that is really magical.” (Pilbrow 174).

The best thing that happened due to this change was the respect from the audience. There was no more shouting or riots. The light pushed the actors more up stage behind the proscenium helping the audience concentrate more on the action that was taking place on stage rather than what was going on in the house. Management had more authority on what went on during the show because they could see (Penzel 54). Gaslight was the leading cause of behavior change in theaters. It was no longer a place for mingling and orange selling; it was now a place of respected entertainment.

Gas was distributed throughout the whole theater so, how did the system actually work? Step one is the heating of coal gas in a cast iron cylinder and extracting gas from the coal. This process produced an explosive carbon that was removed simply by turning the cylinder on its side and placing doors on the ends for the carbon's easy removal. Purified gas consisted of hydrogen, methane, carbonic oxide, heavy hydrocarbon, and nitrogen. Gas was stored in tanks called gasometers. Dr. Charles Kugler came up with this concept and found that carbon was easier to remove from the gas after the gas was extracted from the gasometer.

Gas was dispensed through iron mains underground leading gas to smaller cast iron pipes called “services” that led to the burners. Services were connected to the buildings, but, before this connection, a shut-off line, which was controlled by the gas companies, was added. This was done as a safety precaution. The billing was done by counting burners that were in use. The gas meter was invented around 1815 and measured the amount of gas being supplied. Once reaching the building, gas was regulated by using a gas table. This table supplied gas throughout the building with cast-iron or brass tubing. These tubes were led to outlets that were set in the house and on the stage. The outlets were connected to gas burners that produced light to the lighting instruments (Penzel 77).

There were six types of burners but four burners were really experimented with. The first burner used with this system was the single-jet burner that produced a small flame. The tip of the burner was made out of lead which absorbed heat causing the flame to be smaller in size. It was discovered that the flame would burn brighter if straight metal was mixed with other components such as porcelain. Flat burners were invented mainly to evenly distribute gas and light to the systems. The fishtail burner is a relative to the flat burner but it managed to create a brighter flame and conducted less heat. The last burner that was experimented with was the Welsbach burner. Around this time the Bunsen burner was in use along with some forms of electricity. The Welsbach was based off the idea of the Bunsen burner, still using gas, a cotton mesh with cerium and thorium was imbedded into the Welsbach. This source of light was named the “gas mantle” which created three times more of the flame (Penzel 89).

Instruments that were used to light the stage during the nineteenth century fell under different classifications. Footlights, border lights, groundrows, lengths, bunch lights, conical reflector floods, and limelight spots were mainly used during this period. These mechanisms sat directly on the stage blinding the eyesight of the audience. Footlights caused the actor's costumes to catch fire if they got too close to the lights. These lights also caused bothersome heat that affected both audience members and actors. Again, the actors had to adapt to these changes. They started fireproofing their costumes and placing wire mesh in front of the footlights.

Border lights, also known as striplights, were a row of lights that hung horizontally in the flies. Color was added later by dying cotton, wool, and silk cloth. Lengths were constructed the same way as the border light, only these lights were mounted vertically in the rear where the wings were. Bunch lights are a cluster of burners that sat on a vertical base that was fueled directly from the gas line. The conical reflector can be related to Fresnels that are currently used today. This adjustable box of light reflected a beam in which the size could be altered by a barndoor. Limelight spots are similar to today’s current spotlighting system. This instrument was used in scene shops as well as the stage (Penzel 95).

Gas lighting did have some disadvantages. "Several hundred theatres are said to have burned down in America and Europe between 1800 and the introduction of electricity in the late 1800s. The increased heat was objectionable, and the border lights and wing lights had to be lighted by a long stick with a flaming wad of cotton at the end. For many years, an attendant or gas boy moved along the long row of jets, lighting them individually while gas was escaping from the whole row. Both actors and audiences complained of the escaping gas, and explosions sometimes resulted from its accumulation." (Sellman 15)

These problems with gas lighting led to the rapid adoption of electric lighting. “Thomas Edison’s electricincandescent lamp, invented in 1879. By 1881, the Savoy Theatre in London was using incandescent lighting.” (Wilson 364). As electric lighting was being introduced to theatre stages, people who still were using theatre lighting developed the gas mantle in 1885. “This was a beehive-shaped mesh of knitted thread impregnated with lime that, in miniature, converted the naked gas flame into in effect, a lime-light.” (Baugh, 24). However, this made the light produced brighter, an “Engineering report indicates, the pressure to achieve audience comfort, convenience and, above all, the safety that electricity provided ensured that electric technology was rapidly introduced.” (Baugh 24). Electric lighting would slowly take over all lighting, not just in theatres, but everywhere else. In the twentieth century, electric lighting would lead to even better and safer theater productions. These productions would be comfortable to watch with no smell, relatively very little heat, and more freedom for designers.