What Is Limelight

Limelight is one of the most important aspects of a stage performance. It has been used for centuries to highlight the performer and the performance. However, it has not always been electric or so advanced. So, What is the limelight? And how has it come from the salt-burning lamp to the modern and sophisticated limelight?

In a sense, limelights and spotlights are pretty similar. They both have a narrow central beam. But other than that they are two different types with different specialties. The former specializes in light color, accent, smoothness, transition, etc. While the latter is better at producing high-intensity long-range beams.

Limelight has its usage limited to live performance stages, whereas the spotlight is more of a general-purpose light source, that is useful to almost everyone, in numerous situations. Allow me to explain in more detail.

What is the limelight?

Limelight refers to a spotlight used on a stage to highlight the performer. They generate a very narrow beam of light. And they are also very customizable. And the brightness, accent, spread, color, etc. everything is chosen very carefully depending on the show taking place.

The term “Limelight” also has a different meaning. It refers to someone, or something is at the center of attention. The phrase got this meaning from the early days of stage shows when the term “In the limelight” popped up. Later, the phrase itself got in the limelight (😉 got it?), and general people started using it.

What is the spotlight?

A spotlight is a light that is capable of creating a focused beam of light. Yeah, it’s a generalized definition, because the light itself is a general form of the limelight. Any light with a focused, powerful central beam is a spotlight.

So, Limelight, searchlight, Skylight, etc. all are definitively spotlights. But by the term “spotlight”, we usually refer to a portable handheld battery-operated spotlight. Being portable and battery-operated, these lights can be used in all sorts of activities.

Limelight vs Spotlight: Key differences

As we established above, any light source capable of producing a narrow, focused beam of light to focus on a specific object or limited area much more brightly compared to the surrounding is a spotlight. On the same note, technically, the limelight is also a spotlight. But its usage is so limited and specialized, that the two couldn’t be more different.

  • Limelight is far more customizable than a spotlight. This includes the light color, accent, brightness, focus, beam radius, movement and coverage, and more. Whereas a spotlight is more stripped-down, mostly just bare functionality. 
  • Limelight is generally less bright than a spotlight. And is almost exclusively used in indoor setups. On the other hand, a spotlight can be significantly more powerful depending on the brand and model.
  • Limelight performs best in combination with one or more other limelights or spotlights to create the perfect ambiance. But a spotlight often replaces other lights and works as a standalone source of light.

The history of the limelight

In 1816, English inventor, Thomas Drummond invented the first limelight. It was used to produce bright light on stage that could be focused on the performer. The word “limelight” actually comes from the fact that the light comes from burning quicklime in the lamp.

In 1830, French physicist, Augustin-Jean Fresnel, improved upon Drummond’s design by using a lens to focus the light. This made the light brighter and more concentrated. By definition and characteristics, this is the first evolution of the limelight

How the limelight has changed over time

Fresnel’s invention paved the way for the development of the modern electric spotlight. In 1876, American inventor, Moses G. Farmer, developed the first electric arc lamp. This lamp used an electric current to create an arc, or plasma, that creates a bright light. Farmer’s invention was later improved upon by English inventor, Sir Joseph Swan. Swan’s lamp was more efficient and produced a brighter light.

And over time, newer technology of bulbs and power sources changed it drastically.

Evolution of Spotlight

The first noted use of the spotlight was in Paris in 1909 to illuminate the Eiffel Tower. It was so successful that it quickly replaced the traditional lime light in theaters around the world.

The electric spotlight revolutionized the theater industry and opened up new possibilities for stage lighting. And as we discussed above, the lime light is an evolved and more specialized form of the spotlight. Due to the popularity of the theatre in the 1800s and 1900s, the need for a specialized spotlight kept growing, and the limelight eventually branched off from the traditional spotlight.

The first few generations of the lime light used lime salt as both the light source and the power source. Later generations used electric arc lights. The theatres did have the budget and capability of using the limelight for an extended period. 

Then came more modern technology such as incandescent bulbs, CFL bulbs, and recently LED bulbs. All of them are more powerful than the previous while being more energy-efficient. Nowadays, the majority of the limelight use LED bulbs and electricity as the power source.

Limelight’s significance in performance

The limelight is a staple instrument of the theater for centuries to highlight the performer and the performance. It is an essential part of any stage production. The modern electric spotlight has made it possible to create more sophisticated and creative lighting designs.

Lime lights are powerful tools that can create a variety of effects. It can be used to focus attention on the performer or the performance or to create a mood or atmosphere. 

The ambiance of the stage plays a crucial role in the success of a play. Even a masterpiece can seem pale if the ambiance isn’t right, and even a crappy play may seem magnificent in the right setup.

Lime lights are also useful for creating different setups for different acts of a play to create different expectations and moods in the audience. The modern electric limelights with LED bulbs make the transition far quicker and smoother.

Limelight vs spotlight: which one is better?

We’ve established that the limelight and the spotlight are quite similar in functionality. And that is reason enough to mix up between the two. But comparing the limelight with a spotlight is like comparing apples to carrots. They are both healthy, nutritious, and tasty, but they are not the same thing.

To clarify, here are the key features of the two at a glimpse.

Produces relatively gentle lightProduces relatively strong light
Comparatively less brightCan be multitudes brighter in comparison
Almost always focusable and dimmableFocus and dimming ability are exotic features, available, but very rare
Used in indoor setupsUsed in outdoor setups
Often accompanied by other limelights and spotlightsMostly used as a standalone light source
Customization like colored or blurred lighting is readily availableNot readily available, you have to search for such features
Supports mechanized or automated movements Mostly handheld and manually operated

Frequently Asked Questions

To clarify the concepts further, here we will answer some of the common questions about the limelight and spotlight. For further questions and more specific answers, be sure to reach out to us.

Where does the term lime light come from?

The term “limelight” comes from the source of the first lime light. Early limelights burnt quicklime cylinders to produce a light brighter than candles that were bright enough for a commercial theatre.

And, “light”ing the “lime”, or the “light” from the “lime”, eventually gave the light source the name, “limelight”. The name became so popular that it is still used even today to refer to the type of light even though the use of lime is out of practice for centuries.

What is lime in lime light?

The “lime” in the “limelight” refers to a chemical compound, quicklime, that the early generations of the limelight used as both power source and light source. Quicklime is also known as Calcium Oxide (CaO) and is readily available as a white powder.

Who invented lime light?

The credit for inventing the limelight often goes to  Thomas Drummond. However, the limelight has a complicated history, and it took a long time to evolve into the limelight we all know. Thus, several inventors and personnel deserve some credit in the process.

However,  Thomas Drummond deserves the limelight (pun intended) more because his prototype shaped the evolution of the limelight more than others.

How do lime lights work?

The traditional limelights burnt a cylinder of quicklime to produce brighter and more powerful light that was focused and aimed with lenses and reflectors. They used to work like candles but were larger and more powerful.

Modern limelights use an electric bulb as the light source, and electricity as the power source. An LED bulb (or an array of LEDs) generates the light that is then focused, sharpened, blurred, or colored with various lenses.

What is the difference between limelight and spotlight?

The limelight generates smoother and calming light, whereas the spotlight generates brighter and more powerful light. The limelight is tailored for indoor usage but the spotlight is mostly used in outdoor setups.

Limelight is focusable and dimmable. But the spotlight is not. The limelight is the more specialized form of spotlight designed to be used in stages and theatres.


At the end of the day, both the limelight and spotlight are similar light sources with comparable features. And both of them evolved from the same ancestor, the spotlight. But the necessity drove them on different paths leading to different forms.

While the limelight has more customization options and features, the spotlight is the more popular of the two. The reason is that the spotlight is more universal and pairs well with everyday use. As a result, it caught on and became a part of everyday life for the general public whereas the limelight remained the main attraction for the theatre even to this day.

This article is mostly focused on the limelight. If you want to learn more about the spotlight, you can read other articles that are more focused on the spotlight

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