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The History and Types of Lighting Fixtures


Today’s world of stage lighting technology is a constantly-advancing industry where lighting fixtures are becoming brighter and more energy-efficient as technologies continue to improve. Live events are employing ideas that allow us to streamline our designs while giving greater flexibility in what our lights are capable of accomplishing.



 

How did we get here? 


As live events began to transition from using only sunlight to depending on candlelight indoors, there have always been lighting technicians tinkering with concepts to put on the best show possible. In the early days of stage lighting we saw the use of candelabras on walls, chandeliers over the stage, and, most importantly, footlights across the front of the stage to illuminate the scene.



Candle Footlights provided an upward glow on performers
Candle Footlights provided an upward glow on performers

 

With the use of live candles came innovations in dimming that included dowser tubes that could be lowered over the live candles to dim the lights, and mirrors behind the candle to increase brightens and beam control. During this time a lot of theatres caught fire, as you can imagine. 



pulley system

A pulley system used for dousing candlelight. Stage Lighting has always employed ‘selective focus’, the notion that the stage lighting is there to tell the audience where to direct their focus. Background players are dimmer, lead actors are in the brighter light to draw everyone’s attention.



 

Candlelight was eventually replaced by gas light in the early 1800s, and this gave an increase in brightness for footlights as well as the use of technologies utilizing lenses to control beams. Theatres were being installed with gas lines that allowed better control of lighting fixture intensity. The downsides of gas light included more fires, gas buildups that led to explosions in a few instances, audiences experiencing illnesses due to gas leaks, and, with the lights being brighter, the scenic, costume and makeup designers were forced to work harder as the brighter light exposed more flaws and inconsistencies on stage.



Gas Lighting Fixtures allowed for intensity control with gas valves
Gas Lighting Fixtures allowed for intensity control with gas valves


 

The late 1800s and early 1900s gave way to the modern electrical revolution. Employing one of the early corporate takeovers of a single industry, Thomas Edison and his contemporaries were able to effectively show that gas lighting was not safe, and that electrical lighting was a more efficient alternative to gas fixtures. 



Thomas Edison’s original patent for the electric light bulb.
Thomas Edison’s original patent for the electric light bulb.

 

Electricians were able to install an electrical fixture to replace an existing gas fixture, and then run electrical wiring through the gas tubes that were also pre-existing. The designs employed by Thomas Edison and his contemporaries like Harvey Hubbell (inventor of the pull-string light socket) are still in use today, and their work was critical for the stage lighting and film industries.



Hubbell’s patent for the pull-socket fixture. The Hubbell family manufactures many of the electrical connectors we use today in entertainment lighting, and they hold patents ranging from the pull-cord socket to the electric car window motor.

Hubbell’s patent for the pull-socket fixture. The Hubbell family manufactures many of the electrical connectors we use today in entertainment lighting, and they hold patents ranging from the pull-cord socket to the electric car window motor.



 

Today’s Lighting Fixtures and their Origins:



Ellipsoidals


Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlight fixtures have traditionally employed a lamp (light source), a reflector around the lamp, shutters to control the beam, and lenses to control the beam size and sharpness. They are used for stage washes, gobo patterns, and their beam size is dependent upon the lens tube for each fixture. 



The US Patent Submission for the Strand-Century Lekolite
The US Patent Submission for the Strand-Century Lekolite

Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlights were originally produced by Strand-Century Lighting in the 1930s, and the creators Joseph Levy and Edward Kook combined their last names into “Leko” to bring Lekolite to life. These fixtures dominated the industry for decades, with competitors like Kliegl Bros developing their own popular ellipsoidal fixture to compete with Strand. In the 1990s the company ETC (Electronic Theatre Controls) developed their own ellipsoidal fixture and branded it the Source 4 Ellipsoidal. Being comprised of high-temp plastic components and brighter optics, this fixture quickly took over the industry as developers began to move away from steel-construction, and lighting technicians everywhere were, indeed, thankful for fewer burns.


A standard ETC Source 4 Ellipsoidal on the left, and LED Source 4 Ellipsoidal on the right
A standard ETC Source 4 Ellipsoidal on the left, and LED Source 4 Ellipsoidal on the right

Today’s LED Ellipsoidals have replaced the lamp and reflector housing with an array of LED diodes, and with time the brightness and beam quality of an LED leko has outpaced its incandescent predecessors.



 

Par-Cans


These fixtures were originally borrowed from runway lighting. As roadies were looking to make their concerts brighter, they realized the PAR lamps used at airports were incredibly bright. They developed the simplest of fixtures – the Par-can, which was a lamp, a socket, and a body that resembles a coffee can. In the 1970s and 1980s the Par Can was employed for the classic “wall of light” look that was definitive for bands like Pink Floyd and Queen. Groups of fixtures would be arranged in a grid, and each group would have a specific color for different moments of a show. At 1000 watts per fixture, these concerts were known for affecting city power grids due to how much electricity was being used by the concert venue during the show.



An example of par-cans in use during a Queen concert. Each bank of pars consists of 48 par cans, multiply by 1000w each, multiply by 5 banks of fixtures. 240,000 watts of Par-cans in one photo.

An example of par-cans in use during a Queen concert. Each bank of pars consists of 48 par cans, multiply by 1000w each, multiply by 5 banks of fixtures. 240,000 watts of Par-cans in one photo.



Today’s version of the Par-Can is the LED par, and these fixtures use a fraction of the power that their predecessors consumed. With color-changing capabilities of an LED source, a designer does not need a large rig of fixtures to achieve similar stage wash and color options for a show.


 

Fresnels


In the early 19th Century, Augustin-Jean Fresnel was studying optics and lightwaves in hopes of improving the effectiveness of lighthouses. His experiments included creating lenses and prisms into the shape of a beehive, and this lens he created allowed a beam of light to be seen for many miles. Still in use 200 years later, you can find these original lenses in lighthouses all along the coast as well as in the Smithsonian Museum.



A Fresnel lens as seen on display at the Smithsonian Museum
A Fresnel lens as seen on display at the Smithsonian Museum

The first “Fresnel” fixture made its way into theatre and film in the early 1900s, and this fixture allows for a very smooth blend of light for color washes. Companies like Strand Century and JG McAlister supplied the film industry with versions of the Fresnel that have been a staple for a hundred years. Fresnel fixtures are still being produced today with, you guessed it, an LED light source.



Left image shows a standard theatrical Fresnel. Right image shows a collection of fresnels commonly used in films since the 1920s.
Left image shows a standard theatrical Fresnel. Right image shows a collection of fresnels commonly used in films since the 1920s.

 

Moving Lights


The most fascinating shift in thinking in the lighting industry arrived with the first moving lights in the late 1970s. With projector lamps constantly improving in the 1970s, the rock and roll industry was quick to utilize this brighter source in the creation of a touring fixture. The company ShowCo was compiling technologies into one fixture that would allow for a color-changing light that used dichroic glass filters. With the invention of a color-changing fixture in play, the team at Vari-lite pondered what it would take to make this fixture pan and tilt. The VL-0 was created as a prototype fixture that would pan, tilt, change color, and run a few cues. This invention was presented to the band Genesis who would go on to fund the development of the VL-1, the first touring moving light fixture. These fixtures can be seen in live concert videos from 1981, and with this development Vari-Lite changed the entire industry in terms of what stage lights were able to accomplish.



The Vari-lite VL1 on left, Genesis in concert on right.
The Vari-lite VL1 on left, Genesis in concert on right.

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