Awards season is about to begin. The Golden Globes airs Sunday. The NFL crowns a champion in a few weeks, and in March we get the Oscars. All these events put folks in the spotlight.
The original spotlight was technically a limelight, also called a Drummond light or calcium light. The source of light was an oxyhydrogen flame directed at a cylinder of calcium or lime. It threw off an intense light which was used in the theater to light up important actors and scenes and draw attention to them.
Goldsworth Gurney is credited with discovering this property of lime in the early 1800s. Thomas Drummond recognized its value as a surveying instrument and devised the limelight burner. It was limelight burners that provided light in the underwater caissons that are the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge. The caissons were pressurized by compressed air to keep the river water out. Drummond’s limelight burners were a relatively safe light source in an otherwise dangerous and difficult work environment.
Electricity has since replaced the lime-sourced light. But the spotlight remains a critical piece of stage and theater lighting. Limelight has evolved to refer not only to the source of light, but to the center of attention and is almost always used in that figurative sense.
Awards season shines a light on accomplishments — award-winning performances, winning seasons. The media widens the limelight to focus on winners’ fashion, lifestyle, and behavioral choices, but the limelight does not penetrate to the heart. That’s where the choices and accomplishments that really matter are determined.