Christmas Trilogy 2020 Part 2: Charles brightens up the theatre

There is a strong tendency in the present to view Charles Babbage as a one trick pony i.e., Babbage the computer pioneer. In reality he was a true polymath whose intellectual activities covered a very wide spectrum.

Already as a student at Cambridge, he agitated for major curriculum reform in the mathematics taught and practiced in Britain. He also produced some first class cutting edge mathematics, much of which for some reason he never published. His interest in automation stretched way beyond his computing engines and after extensive research on automations in industry, both throughout Europe and in Britain, he wrote and published a book on the organisation of industrial production, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832), which became a highly influential bestseller, influencing the work of both John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. He was a leader in a campaign to improve the standard of science research in Britain, largely aimed at what he saw as the moribund Royal society, which resulted in his Reflections on the Decline of Science and some of its Causes (1830). As part of this campaign, he was a leading figure in the establishment of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS).


Engraving of Charles Babbage dated 1833 Source: Wikimedia Commons 

His achievements were not confined to purely intellectual activities, he was also an assiduous inventor of mechanical devices and improvement, well outside of his proto computers. For example, he designed and had constructed a four wheeled light carriage for one of his extensive tours of Europe. It was so designed that he could sleep on board and had drawers large enough to stow frock coats and technical plans without folding, as well as a small on board kitchen. However, it is his activities in practical optics that interest me here, in particular his foray into early theatre lighting, which I found fascinating, having, for several years in my youth, been a lighting technician both in theatre and live music.  

An ophthalmoscope is a medical instrument designed to make it possible to observe the interior of the eye by means of a beam of light. The invention of the ophthalmoscope is traditionally attributed to Hermann von Helmholtz in 1851. However, it would appear that Babbage preceded him by four years.

Charles Babbage, the mathematic genius and inventor of what many consider to be the forerunner of today’s computer, his analytical machine, was the first to construct an instrument for looking into the eye. He did this in 1847 but when showing it to the eminent ophthalmologist Thomas Wharton Jones he was unable to obtain an image with it and, thus discouraged, did not proceed further. Little did he know that his instrument would have worked if a minus lens of about 4 or 5 dioptres had been inserted between the observer’s eye and the back of the plano mirror from which two or three holes had been scraped. Some seven years later it was his design and not that of Helmholtz which had been adopted.


The image shows a reconstruction of Babbage’s ophthalmoscope, c. 1847. No actual example survives but this replica was made for the Science Museum in 2003, based upon Wharton Jones’ written description.

Dr. Helmholtz, of Konigsberg, has the merit of specially inventing the ophthalmoscope. It is but justice that I should here state, however, that seven years ago Mr. Babbage showed me the model of an instrument which he had contrived for the purpose of looking into the interior of the eye. It consisted of a bit of plain mirror, with the silvering scraped off at two or three small spots in the middle, fixed within a tube at such an angle that the rays of light falling on it through an opening in the side of the tube, were reflected into the eye to be observed, and to which the one end of the tube was directed. The observer looked through the clear spots of the mirror from the other end. This ophthalmoscope of Mr Babbage, we shall see, is in principle essentially the same as those of Epkens and Donders, of Coccius and of Meyerstein, which themselves are modifications of Helmhotlz’s.

         Wharton-Jones, T., 1854, ‘Report on the Ophthalmoscope’, Chronicle of Medical Science (October 1854).

Around the same time as he built his ophthalmoscope, Babbage designed and built a mechanical, clockwork, programmable, self-occulting, signalling lamp to aid ship to ship and ship to shore communications. He was disappointed that the British marine fleets showed no interest in his invention, but the Russian navy used it against the British during the Crimean War. During the Great Exhibition of 1851, in which Babbage played a central role, he set his signal lamp in the window of his house in the evenings and people passing by would drop in their visiting card with the signalled number written on them. Babbage’s occulting lights were later used in lighthouses in various parts of the world starting in the USA.


Babbage’s mechanical, clockwork, programmable, self-occulting, signalling lamp mechanism

Babbage was a theatre goer and during his phase of light experiments and invention he undertook an interesting project in theatre lighting. During the Renaissance, theatres, such as Shakespeare’s Globe, were open air arenas and performances took place in daylight. Later closed theatre and opera house were lit with chandeliers with the cut glass or crystal prisms dispersing the candlelight in all directions. Of course, the large number of candles needed caused much smoke and the dripping wax was a real problem. By the early nineteenth century theatres were illuminated with gas lamps.

One day during a theatre visit, Babbage noticed that during a moonlit scene the white bonnet of his companion had a pink taint and wondered about the possibility of using coloured light in theatre. He began a serious of interesting experiments with the then comparatively new limelight.

Limelight is an intense illumination created when an oxyhydrogen flame is directed at a cylinder of quicklime (calcium oxide). Quicklime can be heated to 2,572°C before melting and the light is produced by a combination of incandescence (the emission of electromagnetic radiation such as visible light e.g., red hot steel) and candoluminescence a form of radiation first observed and investigated in the early nineteenth century.


Diagram of a limelight burner Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with many inventions the oxyhydrogen blowpipe has many fathers and was first developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Bochart de Saron (1730–1794), Edward Daniel Clarke (1769–1822) and Robert Hare (1781–1858) all of whose work followed out of the pneumatic discoveries of Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786), Joseph Priestly (1733–1804), who both discovered oxygen, and Henry Cavendish (1731–1810), who discovered hydrogen.


Nineteenth century bellows-operated oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, including two different types of flashback arrestor John Griffen – A Practical Treatise on the Use of the Blowpipe, 1827 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first to discover and experiment with limelight was the English chemist Goldsworthy Gurney (1792–1875)


Goldsworthy Gurney Source: Wikimedia Commons

but it was the Scottish engineer Thomas Drummond (1797–1840) who, having seen it demonstrated by Michael Faraday (1791–1867),  first exploited its potential as a light source. Drummond built a practical working light in 1826, which he then used as a signal lamp in trigonometrical surveying. The light was bright enough to be seen at a distance of 68 miles by sunlight. Drummond’s application was so successful that limelight was also known as Drummond light and he was falsely credited with its discovery, instead of Gurney.


Thomas Drummond by Henry William Pickersgill. The original picture is in the National gallery of Ireland Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earliest know public performance illuminated with limelight was an outdoor juggling performance by the magician Ching Lau Lauro (real name unknown) Herne Bay Pier in Kent in 1836. It was first used in theatre lighting in Covent Garden Theatre in 1837. By the 1860s and 1870s limelight was used worldwide in theatres and operas, used to highlight solo performers in the same way as modern spotlights, hence the expression, standing in the limelight. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had been largely replaced by electrical, carbon arc lighting.

 Babbage wanted to take the process one step further and use limelight not just as a very bright white light, but to introduce colour into theatre lighting. Babbage began to experiment with glass cells constructed out of two parallel sheets of glass and filled with solutions of various metal salts, such as chrome and copper. His experiment proved very successful and he developed coloured, limelight spots. Babbage now developed a dance scenario to display his new invention. He proposed replacing the stage footlights with four limelight projectors in the colours red, blue, yellow and purple. His imagined piece had four groups of dancers dressed in white, each of which entered the stage dancing in one of the four pools of light. Dancers springing from one pool of light into another would change colour. Gradually the apertures would widen with the lights crossing each other producing a rainbow of colours through which the dancers would circle. Babbage went on to develop a dramaturgy with dioramas telling an allegorical story.

Babbage discussed his project with Benjamin Lumley, the manager of the Italian Opera House (now Her Majesty’s Theatre) and arranged a demonstration of his new lights. The demonstration took place in the theatre with a smaller group of dancers, and it was apparently a great success. However, because of the fire risk he had two fire engines and their crews on standby during his demonstration and although impressed, Lumley declined a real performance with an audience because of the fire risk. Babbage didn’t develop the idea further.


Portrait of Benjamin Lumley by D’Orsay Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a onetime theatre lighting technician and a historian of science, I would would quite like the idea of staging a modern version of Babbage’s little dance fantasy. I would also like to draw this episode in his life to the attention of all the Ada Lovelace acolytes, who are firmly of the opinion that Babbage was only capable of thinking about mathematics and therefore the imaginative flights of fancy in the Analytical Engine memoir notes must be entirely the work of Lady King.

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Filed under History of Optics, History of Technology

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