The Development of Theatrical Lighting Control Systems

While researching theatrical lighting topics while on my sabbatical, I stumbled across a number of valuable resources published online by Bill Williams.  One particular page caught my eye.  It was a Problem-Solution treatment of the development of lighting dimming and distribution systems found at http://www.mts.net/~william5/history/hol.htm .  As an educator myself, I am always searching for better ways of explaining things to my students and this treatment inspired me to adapt the idea as follows:

Pre-1960s

CHALLENGE:  Lighting must be able to be turned on and off.

SOLUTION:  Provide an On/Off switch for each Circuit/Instrument:

CHALLENGE:  Provide Theatre with convenient way to plug in a variety of lights in a variety of locations.

SOLUTION:  Provide a number of circuits distributed throughout the theatre:

CHALLENGE:  Provide theatre with the ability to dim each circuit.

SOLUTION:  Provide each circuit with an electro-mechanical dimmer:

CHALLENGE:  Some electrical dimming capacity wasted when demand of fixture on circuit falls well below capacity of dimmer.

SOLUTION:  Provide opportunity for circuiting multiple fixtures on a single circuit:

CHALLENGE:  Electro-Mechanical dimmers are too bulky and expensive to provide as many circuits as desirable.  Some capacity wasted when circuit placement is not convenient for lighting design needs.

SOLUTION:  Provide extra circuits and a Patch Bay to allow each circuit to be assigned to any of the dimmers:

ADDITIONAL BENEFIT:  permits organizing the fixture/dimmer assignment to facilitate more convenient operation of bulky electro-mechanical dimmers.

1960s

CHALLENGE:  Bulky electro-mechanical dimmers run with several crew members and occupy room in wings or backstage room with limited ability for operators to gauge the affect on stage.

SOLUTION:  switch to Solid State (SCR) dimmers and a remote control multi-scene preset lighting control board (which can be located in the back of the audience):

ADDITIONAL BENEFIT:  In conjunction with the Patch Bay, permits the addition of a multitude of circuits populated throughout the venue (ideally one circuit per every 18” of light hanging position.

1970s

CHALLENGE:  Audience expectation and Lighting Designer/Production-team demands exceed ability of analog light board to consistently and accurately duplicate light cues.

SOLUTION:  Introduce Computer-controlled digital lighting console:

ADDITIONAL BENEFIT:  Provides a soft-patch digital patch bay, which allows further organization of the dimmers digitally into more convenient groups. Also leads to system capable of controlling exponentially larger number of dimmers and, therefore to the development of channel-consuming scrollers, moving lights and other devices.

1980s-2010

OPPORTUNITY:  Cost of Dimmers with respect to other aspects of theatre (including labor and the cost of wire and circuits) decline.

SOLUTION:  Re-introduce Dimmer-per circuit:

2010 & beyond

CHALLENGE:  Increasing concern with conservation and development of new technologies will probably present additional financial, aesthetic and practical challenges.

CHALLENGE:  Increasing costs associated with the manufacture of lighting fixtures and raw materials and labor required to manufacture wiring and fixtures coupled with ever-increasing audience expectations involving production values and visual spectacle threatens to increase the costs associated with live theatre beyond economic viability for all but the most popular entertainments.

SOLUTION:   TBD.

I hope that you find this treatment informative (or at least interesting)

Have fun!  But be safe!

SJM

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