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Where Does The Term “Limelight” Originate?

Do you love being the center of attention or a bright, incandescent lamp?

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Photo: Ian Muttoo (flickr)

From incandescent lamps to simulating sunlight and moonlight to center of attention. The term limelight sure does mean a lot of different things!

If someone loves being in the limelight, that means they enjoy being the center of attention. We use the word now to mean social prominence, but have you ever wondered what limelight actually is, or how it came to be synonymous with fame?

Where Did The Word Come From?

Originally a limelight was a bright, incandescent lamp invented by the Englishman Thomas Drummond in 1816. At that time, the British government was trying to survey Ireland. To do this, surveyors used tall Irish mountains as reference points. Their problem was that the weather was often bad, making it impossible to see the mountain tops directly.

However, when Drummond lit his newly invented limelights on the tops of these mountains, surveyors could see them from over fifty miles away.

Burned Limestone

The “lime” in limelight refers to burned limestone, not the fruit. Burned limestone gives off great quantities of brilliant, white light when heated. To make a limelight, a small piece of lime is heated by burning a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen gasses. The white light from the glowing lime is then focused with a lens or a mirror.

Theaters And Limelight

Although it started its life as a surveying tool, it was its use in theater that made limelight famous. At that time, theaters were commonly lit by dangerous gas lights.

These were jets of burning gas, like the flame on a gas stove. Gas lights were dim, so it often took hundreds of them to light a scene on the stage, causing a great fire risk.

Limelight is much brighter than gas light, and its pure whiteness made it ideal for simulating sunlight and moonlight.

Front And Center

Its widespread use in nineteenth century theater is where the associations with fame came from. To be in the limelight was to be front and center, on the brightest part of the stage.

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