November 9 – Anniversary of the First Use of Limelight

Posted November 9, 2013

A famous person is sometimes said to be “in the limelight.”

Have you ever wondered what on earth that means? Do limes (and perhaps their close relatives, lemons) give off light – under certain circumstances? Like, when they're near celebrities?

Actually, the “lime” in “limelight” is more akin to the kind of “lime” in “limestone.”

The sedimentary rock we call limestone is usually made from shells and skeletons of ancient creatures pressed together over a long period of time. Limestone is made of calcium and aragonite, that is, various forms of calcium carbonate. (You know calcium—it's that mineral we want you to have for your teeth and bones; some people get it by drinking milk.)

A substance called quicklime is made of calcium oxide—and it is this that was used by Thomas Drummond on this date in 1825 to create a very strong light source. 

A flame made from burning oxygen and hydrogen was directed at a cylinder of quicklime, and the lime gave off incandescent light that was brilliant yet soft and mellow rather than harsh.

Drummond created limes (which is what the actual lights were called) for surveying—because limelight was so bright it could be seen more than 66 miles away. But limelight became very common in theaters all over the world. Limelight was often used to highlight a solo artist, in the same way that electric spotlights are used today.

So a now-outdated light source that was developed for surveying but used in theaters is the reason we often talk about celebrities being “in the limelight”...but what the phrase really means is that the media and the public pay a lot of attention to celebrities' activities and clothes and opinions.

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