Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Technology of Fame

Since 1837, thus early in what might be characterized as the modern era, fame has had a major assist from technology. All of us know the famous, but almost no one pays any attention to the hard and complicated technology that makes them visible. A headline today made me realize that I had no really good idea what limelight really meant. It was a bright light, of course, used on the stage to pick out the principal actors. But lime?

To make limelight you need a source of pure oxygen and hydrogen, neither naturally available without fancy processing of air and water and not containable without fancy metallic vessels. You also need quicklime, calcium oxide, nicely formed into a cylindrical shape. You can produce quicklime by getting some limestone and then, in a specially fashioned kiln (implying high-order ceramic brick to build it), bringing it to a temperature above 1562° Fahrenheit (850° C). This process is known as lime-burning; it causes carbon dioxide to boil away, leaving quicklime, calcium oxide (CaO). You must rapidly contain the quicklime because it will spontaneous react to CO2 in the air and turn back into calcium carbonate, the main component of limestone. Complicated, isn’t it? And you are not yet done. Next you must arrange for pipes to bring the oxygen and the hydrogen together, mixing the two gases under pressure for later ignition. This arrangement, shown in the illustration (source), directs the flame at a cylinder of calcium oxide. The combination of this flame and the quicklime produces a very bright light, equivalent to that of an electric arc, the technology that later replaced this early tour de force in lighting. I could, of course, outline what it takes to make an electric arc, but let’s stick to the limelight.

The effect was discovered in the 1820s and developed by Thomas Drummond into a device by 1826; he used it for surveying; limelight was thus first called Drummond Light. It took another eleven years before the Covent Garden Theatre in London deployed limelight to pick out actors on the stage. And the actors in the limelight became the famous actors.

If you are on cable TV (lots of channels, in other words), take the wand in hand one evening, say at 7:10 pm, and simply, at a moderately rapid speed, scroll through every channel on your set. What you will see, I guarantee, is endless snippets of ads, violence, and the faces of people in the news or famed because they bring or comment on the news. Chances are the experience will not be pleasant, indeed might leave the impression of the extraordinary triviality and/or base character of what Big Brother shows us. Then, having shut off the set in weariness or in disgust, spend some time contemplating the fantastic technology that brought you these images and sounds. You might start by staring at the wand, still in your hand. Never mind the cybernetics and the circuitry, keep it simple. Just explain the batteries that make the thing work…


  1. Most interesting. And, yes, we are enormously removed from knowledge about the things that make up much of our lives. Perhaps this is part of what causes so many to feel alienated.

  2. Monique: I was also remembering that mind-blowingly difficult essay, a way back, about batteries...

  3. Oh, yes, that battery essay. You do have a way of explaining things in a way that helps break down the feeling of it being impenetrable. Of course, learning enough about the subject to be able to do that is a lot of work....