Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlight-Ancient History


Well-Known Member
Aug 12, 2007
New York
In 1923, a GE engineer named Frank Benford developed the optics for an ellipsoidal reflector spotlight. However, it was not until about 1933 that GE was able to develop a suitable lamp that could withstand the heat inside the ellipsoidal reflector.

GE offered two lamps to the market: the T-12 medium prefocus base adopted by Century Lighting in their Leko ERS, and a medium bi-post T-14 adopted by Kliegl. The T-12 was thought to be superior due to the smaller hole in the reflector, but it was plagued by problems with adhesive between the bulb and the base-- the glass bulb often separated from the base when re-lamping. The T-14 bi-post design avoided this problem.

Stanley McCandless (later the author of A Method of Lighting the Stage) and E.B. Kirk were the designers of the Century Leko. [United States Patent 2076240, awarded to Joseph Levy on 04/06/1937.] Original ERS designs used an exotic reflector coating, perhaps Rhodium. In 1935, Alcoa developed the Alzak process, which they licensed to 7 or 8 manufacturers. This highly reflective process stayed in favor in ERS designs until it was displaced by glass reflectors in 1992.

Kliegl formed a separate Kliegl Brothers company to use the Alzak process, while Century decided not to become an Alzak licensee--preferring to subcontract reflectors from Major Electric in Chicago.

Another nice piece of trivia: when Ed Kook and Joe Levy formed Century Lighting, they were working for Display Stage Lighting. They named the new company Century because "C" came before "D" in the Yellow Pages.

Credit for the above history to Sonny Sonnenfeld, a fixture in the lighting industry for more than 60 years who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.


UPDATE: Another View

There is another view as to who got there first with the ellipsoidal, Century or Kliegl. Dr. Joel E. Rubin, executive vice president of Kliegl for many years, recently donated his collection of books and papers to the Lawrence and Lee Theatre Arts Collection at Ohio State University. He has kindly assembled the pertinent catalog entries and a 1923 US patent, which are now attached to this article. Dr. Rubin said "You can see how easy it was for Kliegl to be first. They were already making use of ellipsoidal reflectors in the downlights at the Center Theatre which opened in December of 1932. And Richard Engelken, Kliegl nephew, was on staff providing the ongoing design of the theatre fixture much as we know it today"


Interesting to note that there was seemingly no further lamp development on the 750T12/9 or 500T14/7 until the Quartz-Iodide lamps in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Likewise the fixtures stagnated also.

Why are there no examples of existing ERS fixtures prior to the Century 1500-series or Kliegl 1100-series from the mid?-1950s ?
Here are some pictures of one:

(Fairly certain the duct tape covered, ungrounded Edison plug didn't come from the factory like that.)

Could this be an even earlier one?



From Full text of "A chronological history of electrical development from 600 B.C." :
1. Century Lighting Equipment, Inc.
2. 1929
3. Joseph Levy, Pres.
Edward F. Kook, Treas.
4. Joseph Levy

1. Universal Electric Stage Lighting Co.
2. 1896
3. Anton T. Kliegl
John H. Kliegl
4. Anton T. Kliegl
I've recently read that Joseph Levy had two brothers who were, at least peripherally, involved in Century Lighting. Odd that their participation is largely forgotten/ignored.
From An Oral History Of Theatrical Lighting And Its People :
Marge Romans: How did Ed Kook get into the theatrical lighting business?
Bob Schiller: He grew up with theatre people--Jo Mielziner and Kermit Bloomgarten and Herman Shumlin, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. They all grew up together and were buddies. As a youngster, he enjoyed the theatre and did some work in the theatre, but he was primarily an accountant with a company called Display Stage Lighting. Ed and these three brothers named Levy had bought Display Stage Lighting, and from that formed a company called Century Lighting Equipment, in the early 30s. Joe Levy was an electrical engineer who developed and invented the leko; Irving Levy ended up running the financial department; and Saul Levy was an attorney who had all the money. Ed was the president and financial guy.
Also interesting is that both Century and Kliegl began with the "Vari*Lite model"; preferring to lease, rather than sell outright, equipment to producers.


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Resident Curmudgeon
Senior Team
Premium Member
Aug 21, 2007
Las Vegas, NV, USA
Relevant article from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/so-w...ot-light-anyway-jeff-gress?trk=mp-reader-card :
So- I'm an old guy now. I look nostalgically at the old gray Century 6X9's I periodically bump into in my work. I have about 50 65Q Fresnels in my inventory that I'm sweet on. I remember working autotransformer boards and patch bays with sliders. Several years ago, I was in Kansas City for the national USITT Conference. USITT does a nice job pointing out Fellows of the Institute who have unique and long term knowledge about the lighting industry. Talking with these men and women is always a delight and I continue to grow in my appreciation of the working conditions in which they worked and transformation in our current opportunities and tools. As I walked the conference floor I would approach a Fellow and ask, "Who invented the ERS?" The answers surprised me.
As a young lighting student I was introduced to the work of Stanley McCandless. It was he who was identified with the development of so many ideas, processes, and pieces of equipment introduced in the decades that followed the advent of AC systems that predominated from the 1930's until the change to this century. McCandless was an inventor, artist, businessman, home light fixture designer, architectural consultant, teacher, mentor, and a consulting engineer, along with his associate and then assistant E. B. Kirk. I was taught that McCandless actually created the ERS as part of his work at Yale- as the story was told and repeated in various forms.
The surprise in my Kansas City conversations was that there was confusion. Actually, there was some heated contradiction. There evolved in my conversations a group with proof that it was McCandless and group with proof that it was the Kliegl Brothers. The stories were fascinating. The most common was that Mr. McCandless created the ERS fixture by mating an ellipsoidal reflector in a house light fixture for his consulting work on the construction of Radio Music Hall. There is some truth in that. Another was that the Kliegl Brothers created it and a few months later Ed Kook's company Century Lighting created the first commercially viable production model for rentals on Broadway, something the early Kliegl company was not interested in doing- rentals. For five days I wandered through talking to current suppliers and men twice my age and friends in the industry who designers and the confusion grew.
An odd story that popped up was that notion that it was actually a lighting lamp designer in the General Electric lab spaces in Brook Park, Ohio that actually patented the first ERS. After the end of my inconclusive casual survey, I headed home to Ohio and kept digging. The Brook Park story I chased for almost a year. That product was true and parts of its development was included in the Century Lighting engineering archives that were eventually purchased by Strand Lighting. Strand subsequently was purchased by now-owner Phillips and archivist with Phillips who came in from Strand with the acquisition told me about pallets of old Century archives sitting on loading dock in Texas in which, it was supposed, proof of the Century Leko fixtures creation would lie. If you are new to the fixture, the Leko was actually named after the two men who operated Century Lighting- Joseph Levy and Ed Kook. LEKO.
Another divergence in this story came when I found a patent filing from 1923 for a "spotting light" that looked remarkably like the old silver base-up housing and round body with a single step lense of the first generation Kliegl ERS fixtures. This would have been a decade prior to the Kliegl's work and Century's LEKO.
Eventually, my search came to the attention of Dr. Joel Rubin. Dr. Rubin holds a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Stanford where he did his doctoral thesis in the evolution of electric light from 1890 to 1950. His thesis is exhaustively detailed and thorough in its discussion. Hard to find, but an impressive read when you can. Dr. Rubin began working with the Kliegls in New York and eventually became their General Manager. Personally, I remember him as the President of USITT when I first joined. I remember well his call to service and volunteer leadership that was the heritage of the Institute since its founding he shared in farewell address at his retirement. It seemed the logical step to ask Joel and his response in the form of letters, catalog cuts, and pictures solved the mystery.
For Dr. Rubin it was no mystery at all. Included in the document was a typed letter on Yale University letterhead signed by Stanley McCandless (Mac) himself. This is evidently a letter in response to Dr. Rubin's earlier request for information about the industry and catalogs or other information about lighting between 1910 and 1920. Mr. McCandless shares that, "Century was founded by J. Levy and Ed. Kook in 1929 when they both resigned from Display to form their own company. (side note- there are several Display Lighting catalogs and documents in the Yale University archives. Display was an early pioneering firm in designed architectural lighting for retail, an activity that Mr. McCandless pursued for several decades in addition to his research and teaching at Yale as well as his consulting and production design centered around his office that he shared with E. B. Kirk, his assistant and office manager.)
McCandless continues in his letter, "There was an engineer, Benford, who wrote several articles in the GE Review for October 1926, I believe, in which he discussed the use of ellipsoidal reflectors as an optical system for spotlights and even slide projectors." McCandless then shares that his soon-to-become assistant, E. B. Kirk, furthered that work by, ... investigating all forms of reflectors and came up with a half ellipse and a plane mirror at axis and incorporated this into a down light for the Center Theater in New York." (This is the theatre located in Rockefeller Center originally named the RKO Roxy and then changed to the Center Theatre ). Kliegl brothers manufactured the house fixtures Kirk designed.
McCandless' last line in his letter to Rubin reads, "This was in 1931 or 1932. Kliegl made it (the house down light above) and took most of the credit. Kliegl also made the first ellipsoidal spotlight, but at that time Kirk was employed by Century (under McCandless' supervision as a consultant) to design their unit and a good job he did, too."
In Dr. Rubin's letter to me, he also shared a Letter to the Editors of Live Design Magazine about this topic. In this article for the March 2011 magazine, Dr. Rubin provides additional information- both about the fixture and ideas about why the long running confusion. "This response is the the section "1930's: Ellipsoidals" in which the statement is made "the ERS is commonly attributed to engineer Joseph Levy and Edward Kook...." (of Century Lighting). That is not inaccurate, since it depends upon the word "commonly," but it is historically incorrect. It is a fact that the first ellipsoidal reflector spotlights were manufactured and introduced into the field by Kliegl Bros."
Rubin continues, "Commonly attributed" seems due primarily to the fact that "Lekolight" (Levy and Kook) caught on as a kind of generic description, while "Klieglight" had a history more linked to bright arc sources and "klieg-eyes. It is also true that there are numerous references to the potential use of the ellipsoidal reflectors in lighting well prior to the 1930's."
In the Live Design article, Dr. Rubin clarifies Kirk's work, "Those units (the Center Theater down lights) were built by Kliegl, the principal designers being Herbert Kliegl and Richard Engelken, a Kliegl nephew. Working for the engineers on the the project was Edward. B. Kirk (later in partnership with Stanley McCandless as lighting consultants)."
As final proof, Dr. Rubin shares that... "Herbert Kliegl provided a demonstration of the Kliegl theatre ellipsoidal in April of 1933 to a meeting of the Illuminating Engineering Society in Chicago." In addition, the 1934 Kliegl catalog includes photographs of the Kliegl ERS fixtures installed in the Waldorf Astoria ballroom and the Stanley Theater in 1933. Century's LEKO fixture was introduced in their product catalog published in 1934
So- that is the answer. Kirk, working with McCandless, Levy, and Kook, created a fixture using similar concepts but the Kliegls were first to market by several months. So an obvious question is why do we use (or did use for a long time) the term "leko" and "Kliegl" as the generic term for an ellipsoidal reflector spotlight? I have a story about that as well for another time.
Jeffrey Gress
January 6, 2016
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