Technology That Changed The Lighting Industry

We wanted to look back at innovations that changed the entertainment technology industry, and so we polled our readers for their nominations and pulled out the top ten responses of products or technologies that have made a real impact. We didn’t include obvious items like the Apple iPhone or personal computers since they apply to all industries. Here are the finalists, with some comments from our readers sprinkled throughout for good measure.
If you feel like we left something off the list, let us know at [email protected].

Color Filters

We’ve come a long way from using colored water or silk materials in front of a candle or a lamp for coloring stage lighting. Early sheets of color, dating from around the turn of the 20th century, were actually made from gelatin material, which still influences us today via the name “gel,” even though it hasn’t been commercially available in that form since the late 1970s. We also still have 20"x24" color filter sheets, the size of the original sheets of glass on which the Brigham company poured colored gelatin to set up in a barn in Vermont. Early plastic color of the 1950s, most made of acetate, was produced under the trade names Cinemoid in the UK and Roscolene in the US, and due to higher wattage sources, faded away in the 1980s. Better materials like polyester and polycarbonates replaced acetates and gelatin filters and handled the heat of higher wattage tungsten sources much better. In 1969, Berkey Colortran introduced the first deep-dyed polyester filter—Gelatran. Today, Rosco produces Roscolux with extruded polycarbonate; GAMProducts makes its line with deep-dyed polyester in the same way as Gelatran; and Lee Filters and Apollo produce surface-coated polyester color filters. Over the years, the amounts of colors and shades have increased, but color filters are still the most cost-effective way to produce that “just right” color.

Next Page: Ellipsoidals


A historic year for stage lighting, 1933 brought with it the ellipsoidal reflector spotlight (ERS). Prior to its introduction, lighting consisted mainly of soft washes of light from open-faced units or Fresnels along with a slightly harder-edged light, the plano-convex spotlight. The ERS is commonly attributed to engineer Joseph Levy and Edward Kook, president of Century Lighting Equipment, whose ERS took its name, the Lekolite, from the first two initials of their last names. Today, LEKO Lite is a trademark of Philips Strand Lighting/Selecon luminaires, and “leko” is frequently misused to identify any ellipsoidal. Kliegl Bros. Stage Lighting came out with its version, the Klieglight, that same year. Here was a light that had two lenses and shutters that could control the beam. It generally produced a hard-edged spot, but the focus could be adjusted by moving the lenses to soften the edge of the beam.

In the 1950s, inventive technicians started cutting up radiator covers and putting them into the focal plane of the light to create shadows, and the idea of template projection came about. ERS lights could have different lensing, depending on the throw distances. Zoom lenses came later and allowed an easy change of beam angle without having to swap the lenses. Altman Lighting created the 360 ERS (and later 360Q when quartz halogen lamps came about in the 1960s), which became the dominant ERS until the early 1990s, when inventor David Cunningham created the Source Four ERS and a new lamp. After being rejected by one manufacturer, he partnered with Electronic Theatre Controls (ETC). Two million Source Fours are in use around the world today. Companies like Rosco, GAMProducts, and City Theatrical make hundreds of accessories to work with ellipsoidals.

Next Page: SCR Dimming

SCR Dimming

Texas Instruments’ development of the Silicon Controlled Rectifier (SCR) in the 1940s led to the dimmer that is still used to this day for lighting control. In 1959, the first SCR dimmer system was installed in the Dallas Theatre Center. Century Lighting and Kliegl Bros. Stage Lighting both produced SCR dimmers that incorporated a pair of SCRs—one to handle the positive side of the AC sinewave and one to handle the negative side—along with a filter choke to cut down on electrical noise and reduce lamp filament humming. As opposed to older resistance dimmers that had to be fully loaded to the dimmer’s rating and autotransformers, SCR dimmers allowed for remote control. Originally hardwired for analog control and later digitally controlled, the SCR dimmer has kept getting better, and smaller, over time. Dimmers are now modular, portable, and have different load capacities, and some can feedback information to the console operator. Both ETC and Philips Strand Lighting still use SCRs for their primary dimming systems. Newer dimming technologies like sinewave, IGBT, and MOSFET have all come along, but none has taken on the bulk of dimming that SCR dimmers still handle to this day.

Next Page: The Computerized Console

The Computerized Console

Lighting product inventor Gordon Pearlman gets the credit for the first computerized lighting console used on Broadway, the LS-8. Pearlman was teaching in North Carolina and designed a lighting controller based on the Digital Equipment Corp.’s PDP-8, the first successful mini-computer. He sold the concept to Electronics Diversified, Inc., which promptly used it for the Broadway production of A Chorus Line to control LD Tharon Musser’s lighting. Up until 1975, Broadway shows were still almost exclusively run on piano boards, also known as resistance dimmers. Somewhat prior to this, UK-based Thorn was producing the Q-File, sold in the US by Kliegl Bros., but it was a massive affair with racks of electronics and a price tag around $250,000. Kliegl then came out with the Performance, and Strand with the Multi-Q computer console, and the way we lit productions changed forever. The Q-File inspired Fred Foster and partners to build their own compact console in 1976, launching what would become Electronic Theatre Controls.

Next Page: Cabling


Among the unsung, but essential, products in any system has to be cabling. All entertainment lighting has the concert industry to thank for advances in cabling. Power cables have come a long way, especially since someone used Socapex multi-pin connectors from the French military in the late 1980s. These initially caught on in the UK to efficiently connect large PAR rigs. However the American market, because it uses 120V, required a heavier (12AWG) gauge. This made the standard 18-conductor cables very heavy. In 1990, TV lighting pioneer Jimmy Comorre, working with Colin Waters of TMB, developed what became the American industry standard 12/14 cable. Waters got a UL sanction for the use of bussed ground contacts, using one ground wire per multi-cable but ended up standardizing on two. TMB started stocking 12/14 cable, and six-circuit Socapex-style cabling became the industry standard. At the same time, Waters worked with Al Bernardini of Litton Veam and designed a UL-recognized, Socapex-compatible connector, the VEAM VSC. This incorporated other now standard features, such as ground-make-first, which, along with the UL-recognition, allowed the six-circuit format to penetrate the installation market. As digital control grew in the 1990s, TMB was the first to develop a purpose-built DMX cable for portable lighting. Later, as more networks moved to Ethernet-based control, TMB introduced the first Ethernet cable designed for the portable entertainment market. Other companies, such as PRG with its Series 400 Power and Data Distribution System, now carry both power and data in one cable, patented to carry Ethernet data 500'. Companies like A.C.T Lighting, Belden, and Lex Products also produce professional-grade power and data cabling.

Next Page: Automated Luminaires

Automated Luminaires

Rusty Brutsché and his team at Showco invented this product category with the VL1, with 50 of the units and a computerized console used on the Genesis Abacab tour, launched on September 25, 1981 in a bullring in Barcelona, Spain. Vari-Lite became a patented system in 1983, and the rest, as they say, is history. Lighting for concerts and television—and later theatre—would never be the same. Now, one light could do the work of many via pan and tilt motors to move the light, dichroic color filters to produce color, metal and later glass patterns, along with lenses, frost, shutters, or irises. Automated lighting as a product category thrived, with many new companies cropping up that developed hundreds of models and options. Suddenly, you could get a hard-edged spot light or a soft wash light. Sometimes the whole light moved on a yoke, and sometimes just a mirror moved to put the beam of light just where you needed it. The development of automated lights drove lighting consoles to get better at controlling the lights and spawned a new job position: the lighting programmer, a mix of operator and artist. The lights have gotten brighter, smaller, quieter, and less expensive. There is a light for almost every budget, and almost every production has some form of automated lighting in it.

Next Page: DMX


Prior to the introduction of DMX as a control protocol, you had to use the console from manufacturer A with dimmers from manufacturer A, B’s console with B’s dimmers, and so forth. Every manufacturer had its own proprietary protocol for the console to speak to the dimmers. With the advent of lighting consoles using microprocessors, companies like ETC, who just built consoles at the time, needed their products to speak to different dimmers, especially from companies that only had simpler, analog consoles like Teatronics and Lighting Methods Inc. Black boxes were made by ETC and other third-party companies like Gray Interfaces (Pathway Connectivity today) to convert the protocols and allow different manufacturers’ consoles and dimmers to speak to one another. The rental industry also required more interoperability. A number of manufacturers, rental houses, and academics started meeting in the early 1980s to develop a common protocol, and with the help of United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT), they came up with DMX in 1986. The protocol was designed as a lowest common denominator with a high-end limit of 512 channels and became the structure to initially tie the console and dimmers together, but it grew to include control of automated luminaires, color scrollers, strobes, fog machines, and effects—just about anything you could control from a lighting console. The industry pretty quickly outgrew the 512-channel limit, so universes of 512 channels were added, and the system size increased. In the early days, most consoles only handled one or two universes at a time. As rigs increased in size and complexity, DMX has been stretched to control more. DMX can now be transported over Ethernet for more complex networks and can be sent wirelessly with products from City Theatrical, Interactive Technologies, Lumen Radio, RC4 Wireless, and Wireless Solution, among others.

Next Page: Previsualization And Design/Paperwork Software

Previsualization And Design/
Paperwork Software

In the past, most designers produced hand-drawn light plots, along with the supporting paperwork to aid technicians in hanging the lighting design. With the wider availability of the personal computer, designers started to take advantage of computer-aided design (CAD) software to speed up the process. Many created their own spreadsheets or databases to keep track of the seemingly endless amounts of numbers and data, which only increased with larger productions. Many products have changed the way they all work. In the entertainment industry, Nemetschek’s Vectorworks has grown and morphed since its early days as MiniCAD when it was only available for Apple computers. Cast Software created wysiwyg and previsualization to help designers see what their lighting would look like in the virtual world before any lights are plugged in. ESP Vision created Vision for a different previsualization option, and a number of designers work with Design & Drafting’s LD Assistant to design and previsualize lighting in the same program. Keeping track of all of the channels, dimmers, color cuts, and more is John McKernon’s Lightwright paperwork program, first introduced in 1982, while Rob Halliday has recently developed FocusTrack, a database system for tracking and documenting automated lighting. Dealing with the sheer volume of data on today’s shows, applications like Lightwright and FocusTrack are indispensible tools.

Next Page: LEDs


Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) have come a long way since their origins in the 1960s as indicator lights. They have become brighter and brighter to the point where they can finally be a useful lighting tool in our market. The early ones came in reds, ambers, and yellows, but as green and blue became attainable, the floodgates of RGB LED lighting products opened in the 1990s. Product developers started out putting them into PAR-style fixtures, and a color-mixing LED wash light was born. Companies like Color Kinetics made them a commodity and pushed their use far and wide in architectural and theatrical applications. Research and development teams at a number of manufacturers started adding white and amber LEDs into the RGB mix to try to get to truer white, since RGB is great for colors but not so much for trying to mix to a usable white light. Philips Lumileds and Osram Sylvania, for example, specifically develop LEDs for various markets. Selador, now a division of ETC, then came along with its x7 seven-color system that covers more of the chromaticity range. Newer companies like Prism Projection and Gekko Technologies have created LED-powered lights that produce usable white light for lighting talent, as well as feedback systems to measure the color output and the heat of the unit to maintain colors over time. Robert Juliat’s Aledin LED profile has come the closest so far to providing a really useful LED spotlight.

Next Page: Media Servers

Media Servers

If you use a media server today, which almost every tour, large production, or corporate event usually does, then you should thank lighting inventor Peter Wynne-Willson of the UK-based WWG. Wynne-Willson, along with his partner, the late Tony Gottelier, designed, patented, and licensed the original Catalyst system for digital media manipulation. It started essentially as a computer that handled video processing as well as storage of the media content needed for the imagery of a production. The Catalyst offered realtime image processing. It could work with still or moving images, hold a library of stock images, video clips, or digital patterns. With it, you could edit, scale, rotate, zoom, morph, color mix, overlay images, blend, and more to achieve the desired effects. High End Systems licensed and supplied the Catalyst for a number of years, and many companies have followed with media servers including ArKaos MediaMaster, Barco High End Systems Axon, Control Freak Systems CFS Multi Tap, coolux Pandoras Box, Diagonal Research NEV6, Green Hippo Hippotizer, MA Lighting MA Video Processing Unit, Martin Maxedia, and PRG Mbox EXtreme, among others.

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