The last century has seen an amazing array of advances in technology, some geared to entertainment, some geared to general use, all indispensable to the industry. ED asked a few designers, technicians, consultants, and manufacturers to pick what they felt were the most important
At the start of the new year--once it became clear we were all safe from the clutches of terrorist attacks, Y2K bugs, the holiday blues, and any other end-of-the-millennium jitters--we had begun to wonder which products and innovations had had the most significant impact on entertainment technology in the last 100 years. (Initially we wondered about the last 1,000 years, but that seemed a little too much to take on, since we could only think of a handful of folks in the industry who've been around that long.) Because its rise to prominence was such a significant part of 20th century design, we decided to focus heavily on lighting. But we also wanted the sound and staging community to have a voice in this, so we included them too. So, in the first week of January, ED sent out a questionnaire to approximately 500 of the more influential people in the industry.
What the hell were we thinking? It was an overwhelmingly impossible task, not only for us, but also for the participants. How do you narrow something like this down? The choices ranged from the practical to the profound, from the sublime to the ridiculous. And while there were more than a few who picked only products they themselves manufactured--and hey, if you really feel that strongly about your stuff, more power to ya--the vast majority of the responses tended to focus on general trends. In addition, many of the responses were truly eloquent, offering more than a few choices that we quite frankly had never thought of.
In the end, it became impossible for us to narrow the choices down to a final list. So we didn't even try. Instead, we picked some of the more thought-provoking responses, placed them in specific categories, and tried to create a sort of oral history of entertainment technology. We suspect some readers will have differing opinions; we encourage you to send us your picks, so that we may continue this discussion in future issues of ED.
The computer--The intricacy of stage effects used to be limited to the number of handles pulled, or arms pushing a wagon, or faders pushed on the console. What limits are there now? Todd Hensley, Schuler & Shook
The Intel 8080 microprocessor--It's not a device dedicated to entertainment technology, but it was the eight-bit microprocessor that kicked off the personal computer and embedded microprocessor revolution. Without that first device, we wouldn't have memory desks, digital audio, computerized sound systems, moving lights, or much of anything else that is microprocessor-based. The four-bit microprocessors that preceded it were cute, but you can't do much more than run a calculator with a four-bit micro. Karl Ruling, ESTA
Transistor--The birth of miniaturization in electronics. Wally Clark, Associated Sound
The semiconductor--Particularly the four-layer power control devices. These revolutionized all types of control and turned many dreams into realities. Cliff Wilding, Lighting Engineering
DMX512. Almost everything runs with DMX512! Karl Ruling, ESTA
DMX512 was the breakthrough from the restrictive communications link in analog. Without it, modern lighting consoles, moving lights, and scrollers would not be possible. James Moody, lighting designer
The microprocessor--Nothing I sell today would exist without it: moving lights, consoles, etc. Eric Loader, Martin Professional
Digital protocols--Which have allowed dimmer-per-circuit theatres, providing more flexible designs and better productions. David Shaw, Dove Systems
The computer, specifically as it relates to CAD/CAM (AutoCAD and computer routers and lasers). Bob Usdin, Showman Fabricators
The computer revolutionized show control as well as design capabilities. Tim Knipe, Scenery West
The PC--Obviously, the memory lighting control console and the motion-control console could not have been developed if PCs were not used as the basis of these products. A huge number of productions would not be possible (or would certainly be significantly different) if they had to exist without the benefit of computer-based control products. Bill Groener, PRG
The microcomputer--Unquestionably in my mind, and for all the same reasons as everyone else, I assume: technical theatre, sound, theme parks, cruise ships, television, you name it, wouldn't be the same without a tech table full of PCs nowadays. I look forward to the day when everyone can afford to download theatrical control systems from the web on a pay-as-you-play basis, or even store shows on the web for easy dissemination to touring companies, for example. This is a concept that's been tried for years by the conventional control companies and folks such as Richard Nelson. Ted Ferreira, lighting designer
Two later inventions of the century that have already made an impact on the lighting industry are the offline editor and computer visualization tools. These have allowed users to visualize, design, and light a show in 3D from the comfort of a studio or home. Editors such as WYSIWYG have made it possible to program lighting in the office and then later take the disk to the job site, and with a little focusing, have a show.
All these technologies have made it possible to design an exponentially better show at an exponentially faster pace. As for the future, I believe inventors are striving for a technology that will allow the lighting community to design, program, and execute better lighting, faster, all from the comfort of an umbrella chair on a beach in Hawaii. Christian Choi, High End Systems
Computers, digital signal processing, digital storage medium, and the Internet--I have to put these down as one item, because they are so inextricably linked to each other, and are really part and parcel. The dramatic changes that have happened in the entertainment industry echo the global changes brought on by computers. I can do so much more in a much smaller amount of time now. There is a point where you can do too much too fast, and the quality suffers, but I just have to be aware of my "artistic speed limit," and not exceed it. The great thing is that I can achieve in my designs what I dream they can be, without being limited by tools. I have no excuses left, though! Garth Hemphill, sound designer
The Internet--Now, finally, a designer can truly reach his or her potential, juggling projects around the globe with collaborators in different locations. The ability to do research, send information, download a set designer's sketch or photo of a model without the encumbrances of paper or Fed Ex, or get a plot in on time (buying at least a full day's more plotting time!) from anywhere on the planet cannot be over appreciated. Probably my single most life-changing innovation. Peter Maradudin, lighting designer
Honorable mention: The Macintosh Powerbook 100--As my first repository of computer games, it allowed me to while away those long tech rehearsal hours (often waiting for lights), and it brought new meaning to the term "tech table toy." Jon Gottlieb, sound designer
The ongoing improvements in dimming technology over the course of the 20th century made the greatest impact on the entertainment industry. Going back to its early roots, dimming technology began with cumbersome saltwater units; this design was much improved with the introduction of resistance dimmers, which were later bested by environ dimmers with tubes, ultimately moving into the innovative and complex electronic dimming capabilities that we benefit from today. George Gray, ELS
The ability to dim light has always been a desire in the theatre, whether this was accomplished by simply blowing out candles, dousing the limelight, moving a handle on a resistance dimmer plate, or sliding a potentiometer on a lighting control console. It was a 1940s invention that made the first significant change in how dimming was accomplished, and that was with the invention of the SCR (silicon-controlled rectifier) by Texas Instruments. In the early days, the device was concealed in bomb sights and other electronic devices mounted in bombers flying missions over Germany and Japan during World War II. After the war, TI was looking for other uses for the product. But it was not until 1959 when the first SCR dimmer system was installed at the newly constructed Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dallas Theatre Center. This theatre had a number of innovations for its time including a thyratron tube-controlled stage revolve and motorized spotline winches.
The dimmer was designed by Texas Instruments using a single SCR. Since two SCRs are required to complete an AC sine wave, a device was added to the SCR (it looked like a very large torodial choke) circuit to complete the sine wave. This dimmer system was fabricated by Century Lighting and became the predecessor to the Century CCR100. The dimmer worked in conjunction with an Izenour-built 10-scene preset control console. While it is my understanding that this was the first time the SCR was used in a large-scale dimming system, there may be other competing products with the same claim. However, not long after this installation, the CCR100 (tomato can) dimmer became a standard for Century Lighting.
In the mid-1960s, the Edkotron came into being. The Edkotron was the first truly portable dimmer system with six 1,800W dimmers in a very small chassis. And yes, they are still in use. Many six-packs followed, including the Colortran pack in the early 1970s and Skirpan's not-very-portable six-packs of the same era. It was the Colortran pack that caught on with Showco and other touring lighting companies because of its portability.
The next big jump was late in the 1970s, when Strand Century produced the CD80 dimmer. It used SCR technology, but now the dual SCRs were in a cube. The dimmer module was of a very simple design, keeping the control circuitry isolated on printed circuit cards in the bottom of the rack and out of the dimmer module. The point is that the CD80 was designed to be the first mass-produced SCR dimmer. No more massive patch panels that took hundreds of man days to assemble; now dimmer-per-circuit was a reality. It became the most cost-effective way to produce dimmer racks and the standard 96 dimmer enclosure is still used by every major industry manufacturer. Robin Crews, Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams, Inc.
The introduction and ongoing development of integrated circuits into dimmer technologies and into controls for dimmers, which made possible individual variation in intensity on an unlimited number of lighting instruments. Joel E. Rubin, Artec Consultants
The tube reactor dimmer--This is interesting because of all the developments that came about from this product:
A. Electric control of the dimmer levels. No longer were huge manually operated handles needed, so the multi-scene preset console was invented.
B. The big bulky reactor dimmer gave way to the thyratron tube dimmer, which evolved into the SCR dimmer.
C. With the SCR dimmer, the preset control could evolve into the computer, first with punch cards, and then to modern computer control. Ken Billington, lighting designer
The SCR dimmer was smaller and cheaper and enabled one operator to effectively control many lighting fixtures. Gary Fails, City Theatrical
The Rosco/ET dimmer, with its IGBT technology, solved most problems with SCR dimmers: quiet, no radiated noise, etc. J.B. Nettleton, Total Lighting Concepts
The solid-state relay (SSR)--For modernizing dimming systems and providing the kind of flexible, adaptable, and dynamic dimming control systems that today's designers take for granted, even in small theatres. Wasn't that long ago that two dozen 7kW dimmers was "all she wrote" in many theatres. SSRs changed all that. Ted Ferreira, lighting designer