The White Heat of Revolution: an examination of the effects of the coming of the incandescent lamp to the theatre

It’s an enormous privilege talking about my favourite subject to such a group of experts, especially on this hallowed ground, the stage of the Savoy Theatre in London’s Strand – the very first public theatre in Britain to be lit by means of the incandescent electric lamp. This was a real technological and artistic revolution not only of theatre technology but also the development of world theatre itself.

Let me take you back, one hundred and thirty four years to 1881 to tell you about a technology which changed everything. Not just lighting techniques, but scene painting, makeup, costume, acting styles, and playwriting itself.

Original interior of Savoy Theatre, 1881. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Original interior of Savoy Theatre, 1881. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In October 1881, for Richard D’Oyly Carte, the idea of a new theatre was a dream. Carte’s real ambition was to develop an English form of light opera that would displace the bawdy burlesques and badly translated French operettas then dominating the London stage. He formed the Comedy Opera Company and then commissioned Gilbert and Sullivan to write a comic opera that would serve as the centrepiece for an evening’s entertainment.

In his capacity as Managing Director he somehow held the company together for nearly five years. But he was fed up getting theatre performance slots wherever he could in whatever venues he could get hold of, so when his lease of the Opera Comique came to an end, and he was presented with an unaffordable rent rise, enough was enough. The result he took was independence and The Savoy Theatre.

This would be the best theatre he could make it. Never again would he attempt to cram ‘twenty love-sick maidens’ onto a stage ideally suited to ten. The orchestra pit was large enough for the extra musicians for which Sullivan was always agitating. And spurred by Gilbert, he intended to make the technical facilities second to none. It would have the best of taste in decoration, the finest ventilation systems, and would be the first theatre in the world to be lighted throughout with the incandescent filament lamp.

The phenomenon of light produced by electricity had been known since about 1800, when Sir Humphrey Davey, (he of safety lamp fame), discovered the voltaic battery could be used to heat strips of platinum to incandescence. He also showed a brilliantly blinding light could be produced between the tips of two carbon rods if they were briefly touched together, and that this light could be maintained for as long as they, and the power, lasted. This led to many devices for floodlighting and public street lighting, but it was not until forty-five years later it was used in the theatre. At the Princess’s, Charles Kean used an arc lamp in a pantomime entitled ‘Harlequin and the Enchanted Arrow’ as a wide-angle floodlight.

Fundamentally the arc was not really suitable for large scale wide angle lighting. It flickered and it wasn’t that bright when spread out over a stage.

Another answer had to be found.

The first patent incandescent lamp was in 1841. This consisted of a glass globe filled with powdered charcoal. It worked for a while, but envelope blackening and their tendency to catch fire at an alarming rate rendered them impractical so experiments continued.

Until, that is, Thomas Edison in New Jersey and Joseph Swan in Newcastle on Tyne, independently set about passing currents through filaments made from a variety of materials.

While Edison wowed the crowds across the Atlantic with his original public demonstrations, by 1880 Swan had lit his workshop and indeed the whole of the street with electricity.

Both men had succeeded in their principal aim: to produce an electric lamp that was within reach of all.

Initially, the two companies were very successful but later there were arguments and patent suits as to who was the true inventor. The truth was both men simultaneously responded to the needs of the time, taking what was obviously the next logical step. They soon realised cooperation was better and eventually amalgamated into the Edison and Swan United Electric Company.

It was to the Swan Company that Richard D’Oyly Carte turned when the concept of electrifying the Savoy was mooted. Having seen ‘electric light in lamps’ exhibited outside the Paris Opera House some years previously, he had been convinced that ‘electric light in some form is the light of the future in theatres’.

At the Savoy, electric power was produced in a shed erected on a piece of waste land outside. A collection of steam engines were arranged to drive six large alternators of Siemens Manufacture. The field coil excitation voltage for these was simultaneously generated by six small dynamos.

The theatre itself was wired in six main circuits, corresponding to the number of generators, various areas being protected by sub-fuses. Each area was initially provided with a switch. Main switches for each group were also provided, and it is reported that when they were operated, the flash that resulted could be seen in the auditorium if the scene was dark. Altogether there were 1,158 Swann lamps in the theatre, 114 in the auditorium, 221 in the dressing rooms, and 824 on the stage, giving in total a stage light output equivalent to about 3000 modern halogen watts. Of those, 718 were above the actors’ heads, 50 were floats and portable units, and the remainder were fixed to the side wings in the traditional manner.

The houselighting consisted of 114 lamps, mainly in three-branched, brackets around the auditorium circle fronts.

One of the more impressive features of the incandescent lamps was the fact that, as the applied power was decreased, the output light also decreased, more or less in proportion. Siemens Bros and Co manufactured a series of open spirals of iron wire in a frame, and connected them between the generators and each group of stage lamps switched in and out of the circuit as required. They acted as the first ever resistance dimmers.

There was something of a carnival air in the auditorium the night the theatre opened especially when D’Oyly Carte stepped forward to address the audience. After a brief introduction, he announced although the stage lighting was not ready, the auditorium would be lit by electricity. He went on to warn the system may fail due to the experimental nature of the installation, in which event, the gas system, a small part of which would remain alight at all times, would instantly be brought into full use. Then, at his signal, the gas was turned down and as the Telegraph wrote “there was a hum of expectation and anxiety throughout the house. The effect was instantaneous. A start, a pause, a tremor, and suddenly the auditorium was literally brilliant with the novel light”.

The system behaved itself admirably throughout the performance of ‘Patience’ that evening and at the end, the public expressed a verdict of success not only of the lighting, but also of the production. It was another eleven weeks of hard work before it was considered ready to announce the lighting of the stage by electricity. The eventual solution of the problem was quite elegant in its simplicity. The iron resistors were removed and replaced by a much smaller six-way ‘regulator’. This consisted of half a dozen six-position switches connected to tappings on coils of German silver wire. These were mounted in a wooden frame positioned on the fly floor and were electrically connected, not to the output of the alternators, but between the dynamos and the field coils of the alternators. The operation of these resistances reduced the magnetic flux in the alternator and therefore the output voltage. It had the added bonus that it also reduced the magnetic ‘drag’ in the system, thereby effecting a saving in prime-mover power.

By the afternoon of the 28th December 1881, the installation was judged to be completed, and the public and press gathered to see the latest wonder of the age.

While the introduction of electric light to the art of theatre was a blow to everything the Irvings, Terrys, Trees and Harkers of the era stood for, others seized upon the new medium with ferocious delight. Already, by the time the Savoy had settled, the Alhambra Theatre had installed auditorium lighting to a limited extent and elsewhere in Britain all the new theatres nearing completion or in planning were converted to the electric power as a matter of course.  For a while the invention of the incandescent gas-mantle threatened to slow down the introduction of electricity but by the mid-eighties, the improvement to the accumulator allowed the electric light to be completely steady, flicker free and more or less secure against loss of power. This eventually cleared the way for theatres to take the step of abolishing gas and oil as a primary source of light from their buildings altogether.


This is the (edited ) text of a speech given as part of the UNESCO International Year of Light 2015 celebrations, organised jointly by the Association of Theatre Technicians, The Society for Light and Lighting and The Association of Lighting Designers.  It was given by the author at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End on 24th November 2015.

DorianKellyheadshotDorian Kelly is a professional stage lighting designer. and  A member of the UK planning group of the UNESCO International Year of Light, he is also a performed playwright, and an  events, festival and theatre director, artist booker, exhibition designer, community projects leader, as well as designer of sound, scenic water and pyrotechnic effects and lecturer on theatre technology and performance art.

One thought on “The White Heat of Revolution: an examination of the effects of the coming of the incandescent lamp to the theatre

  1. Reblogged this on FLUOTEC and commented:
    This is the (edited ) text of a speech given as part of the UNESCO International Year of Light 2015 celebrations, organised jointly by the Association of Theatre Technicians, The Society for Light and Lighting and The Association of Lighting Designers. It was given by the author at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End on 24th November 2015.

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