Edison Bulb in the Spotlight

Theater visionary Edward Gordon Craig foretold a future when all the elements of performance—including lights—would play their parts as well as actors. A minor player in a major role, this Edison bulb from the Harvard Theatre Collection tells the story of the first electrified playhouse in America.

Edison bulb from the Boston Bijou Theatre
Edison bulb from the Boston Bijou Theatre, 1882. MS Thr 432 (40)

The invention of a practical incandescent lamp ushered in the modern era of stage lighting. In 1882 London’s Savoy Theatre was the first to make use of electric lights onstage in a specially-designed production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe.

With the show set to open in Boston three weeks later, theatergoers bid at auction for premium seats in the newly renovated Bijou Theatre. Edison himself supervised the installation of over 600 lights throughout the house. Over half were installed behind the auditorium’s distinctive, horseshoe proscenium. On opening night, the new lights were the talk of the town, outshining even the cast.

Boston Bijou Theatre interior
Lithograph of the Bijou’s interior, 1883. TCS 66 (20)

The scene above captures the excitement of the American premiere. The lighted sets for Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster left the audience in a daze of wonder. “Never have we seen a steadier and softer light in a theatre than that given by Edison’s incandescent burners,” the Boston Globe reported. Besides its obvious safety features, electric light cleansed theaters of the odor and bluish tint put off by gas lamps.

The image also depicts the Oriental style of the Bijou’s sumptuous interior, featuring a Moorish ceiling and chandeliers left over from an order for the Khedive of Egypt. Today, a stripped down façade on Washington Street between the present-day Boston Opera House and the Paramount Center is all that remains of the Bijou’s former opulence.

That, and Edison’s bulb. Since its donation in 1975, this hand-blown beauty has seldom, if ever, been exhibited. Stored away from bumping elbows, it is part of the records of the Boston Bijou Theatre, which includes materials relating to the company’s day-to-day management. We owe to Edison’s innovation the thrilling anticipation before a performance as the house lights fade to black and transport us to another time and place.

Edison’s bulb is featured in the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in Houghton Library’s Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.