Let's take a brief look at the history of lighting control systems manufacturers have developed since 1950. Here's a selective list:

  • The Thyratron Tube Multi-Scene Preset Dimming System
  • The Magnetic Amplifier Dimmer System
  • The SCR Dimmer System
  • The Thyristor Dimming System
  • “Dimmer on a Stick”
  • Slide Patch
  • Two Scene Preset Control System
  • Five Scene Preset Control System
  • Ten Scene Preset Control
  • Punch-Card Control
  • Staple Control
  • 3,000 Channel Memory Systems
  • Moving Light Consoles
  • Hand-Held Remote Controls (Wired and Wireless)
  • Networking Systems

Quite an impressive chronology, wouldn't you say? The development of lighting control systems over the years has seen amazing growth. But here's another list:

Ariel Davis, Capital, Cutler Davis, Dilor, Eastern Stage Lighting, Electro Controls, Electronic Designers Inc., Federal Pacific, Frank Adams, Gallagher Dimming & Stage Lighting, General Electric, Hub, Kliegl Brothers, Lighting & Electronics, Lighting Methods Inc., Major Equipment Company, Mega, Metropolitan Electric, Newth, Rainbow, SCR Digitrol, Siltron, Skirpan, Stagebrite, Superior Electric, Theatre Techniques Inc., Trumbull, Van Buren, Vickers, Ward Leonard, West-star, and Westinghouse.

These are among the companies who helped forge the growth in control systems since 1950, and they are all out of the dimming business. That's more than 30 companies who no longer provide lighting control systems. Of these companies, some made auto-transformer dimmer boards, which were the lighting control systems until the late fifties, and some, like Lighting & Electronics, remain very much in business but have stopped making lighting control systems. Since 1950, only five or six new companies have entered the field.

The above companies have left the market even though the dollar volume in the business has increased five-fold. The end result, in many cases, is that owners and users get hurt because they cannot readily get replacement parts, additions to their systems, or system updates. This can be a very real concern if you're an owner/user of an older control system made by one of the aforementioned companies.

Fortunately, a few control system service companies have bought parts from the now-defunct manufacturers. Additionally, as aging systems have been replaced, some service companies have cannibalized the replaced systems and re-use the parts. However, the owner/user cannot get upgrades to their systems or add to them. Many systems have to be replaced because of the owner's inability to get spare parts.

So why has this happened, and what, if anything can the rest of us do? Indeed, why should we do anything? What does it all have to do with the rest of us? Does the performance lighting profession have a responsibility to see to it that lighting equipment and lighting systems manufacturers stay in business?

I believe the answer is a definite yes, and that we are all obligated to do so. Lighting systems and equipment manufacturers spend hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars each year developing new products. Of course, the object for the manufacturer is to make a profit. Manufacturers need profits to stay in business, to pay for development and research of new equipment, and to provide benefits to its employees.

But the result of new research and development is that it puts new lighting tools into the hands of the lighting designer. These tools permit the lighting design team to provide the facility owner/end user better and more efficient ways to create more exciting lighting designs at affordable costs.

Theatre consultants should prepare their bid documents in such a way that the facility owner gets the best (not necessarily the lowest) price for the desired equipment, and must make sure that the bidding process is conducted in such a way that it allows for a profit for the dealer and the manufacturer. In that manner the project can be properly managed, a profit is made, and the project has a dealer to service the job and a manufacturer that will remain in business 10 years later and can provide updates and new equipment.

Specifiers must protect their design by insisting that when the theatre lighting equipment is in the base electric contract, the electrical contractor provides, in his bid, the name of the equipment he plans to use.

Dealers must leave a profit for the manufacturer in their pricing. The manufacturers have spent a lot of money to develop new products that increase the dealer value of the sale or rental. The dealers have a responsibility to keep the quality of the initial lighting design at a high level to protect the dealer, the designer, the client, and the manufacturer.

And I believe that facility owners and users must be willing to pay for research and development. Ultimately, they get the benefit of it. It is the obligation of the design team, the architect, theatre consultant, and consulting engineer to educate the owner about the importance of R&D, and how it will help keep his facility modern, up to date, useable, and rentable at a competitive cost.

Educational facilities endeavor to make available to their students the most modern and up to date facility and equipment. Today, when a student goes into the real world, he or she must be prepared to deal with memory control lighting systems, color scrollers, remote controlled moving spotlights, performer controlled follow spotlights, automated scenery, automated rigging, digital sound, and a host of other new technological systems. Students must be trained in all these technologies.

Owners who get the latest and best technological equipment help establish their facility as the one to use. The user in turn has the ability to provide the most exciting and appropriate lighting for whatever takes the stage. The audience gets to see the best production possible with today's technology. Schools, particularly teaching shools, must understand the importance of R&D costs. They must encourage new ideas, new technologies, and creativity.

I for one am looking forward to the next 50 years of development.

Sonny Sonnenfeld is a consultant with Electronic Theate Controls and this year's recipient of the Wally Russell Award.


All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:

Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. If you can write and want to share your views with ED readers, please send your ideas to David Johnson at djohnson@primediabusiness.com.