Before the advent of electricity or the invention of the gas mantle, there were very few forms of artificial light that were strong enough to allow performances at night or in dark theaters. It was the ingenious application of a hot flame on lime that made center stage the focus of everyone’s attention.

In the 1820s, oxy-hydrogen blowpipes were all the rage. Scientists from all over had made their own variations of Robert Hare’s original torch, which combined oxygen and hydrogen gas to create a directed flame. An English engineer, Sir Goldsworthy Gurney was a sort of gentleman scientist dabbling in surgery, chemistry, architecture, and mechanics. Like any good scientist, he was poking his self-developed torch at all sorts of things, eventually striking his flames against lime. A common misconception, limelights do no use lime the fruit, but lime the mineral—also known as calcium oxide. Lime, when he heated, produces a brilliantly bright light—much brighter than the burning hydrogen.

Harnessing this process, Scottish engineer Thomas Drummond built devices to shape and use this newfound light source. The British initially used the lights for surveying, taking the lights to mountain tops where surveyors could cartograph them during inclement weather.

Stage Life

Eventually, these lights caught the eyes of showmen and replaced the dim gas burners that filled dark theaters. The limelight was the first light to make a spotlight on center stage possible.

Though they were safer than the gas burners used prior, they had to be closely monitored by stage staff. The supplied flammable gases were kept in bags and pressurized by piling things on top of them. Despite innovating stagecraft altogether, they were replaced by electric lights due to safety concerns once arc lamps became available.

Jenny Lind

The limelight in the Ripley’s collection flanked the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, during her tour of America. Organized by P.T. Barnum, Lind’s operatic performances typify the impact of the limelight. The device even became idiomatic in the phrase “standing in the limelight,” still used today to mean someone has everyone’s full attention.