Goldsworthy Gurney, the inventor of limelight

With the recent success of the Cornish film Bait, it’s an appropriate time to remember an unwarrantably obscure Cornishman. Henry Lovell Goldsworthy Gurney was born on February 14th, 1793 at Padstow and died at Bude as Sir Goldsworthy Gurney on February 28th, 1875. Gurney’s connection with the dramatic arts is via his improvement of stage lighting.

Gurney was one of that glittering band of Cornish scientists and inventors that included Humphry Davy and Richard Trevithick. At first training as a doctor and taking over a medical practice at Wadebridge at the age of 20, Gurney uprooted himself and left for London in 1820. There, he became a lecturer in chemistry and a prolific inventor, including things such as high-pressure steam jets and early telegraphy.

Bude Castle

In 1825 he had copied Trevithick and built a steam carriage. This was more successful than Trevithick’s earlier effort, proving itself between Gloucester and Cheltenham. Unfortunately for Gurney, it came to nothing in the face of opposition from horse-drawn transport interests and prohibitive tolls on steam road vehicles. From the early 1830s Gurney divided his time between London and Cornwall, settling at the small maritime and resort town of Bude. There he built Bude Castle near the beach, close to the canal that had been cut in 1823 to take sand and lime to inland farmers.

It was in the 1820s that Gurney improved on the oil lamps and candles previously used to light theatres. He directed an oxyhydrogen flame at a cylinder of calcium oxide or quicklime, producing a brilliant light. These lights were called ‘limes’, hence ‘limelight’. This was followed up by ‘Bude light’, introducing oxygen to an oil-lamp flame to give a more intense light, which was then ingeniously transmitted around his house by a number of mirrors.

Gurney used a similar technique when re-designing the lighting, heating and ventilation system of the Houses of Parliament, where the members were complaining of the smoke emitted by the candles that lit the place and the fetid stench that permeated the chamber. The latter was caused by a lack of ventilation and the close proximity to the Thames, rancid with sewage. Gurney installed a new furnace and a system that circulated the air more efficiently, adding his lighting to illuminate the darker corners of the place.

He was knighted for this in 1863 but soon afterwards suffered a stroke. He survived for a number of years however, and was buried at the peaceful church of Launcells, home of his first wife and close to the upper reaches of the Tamar.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.