Maude Adams and the women glassworkers who brought incandescent lamps to life

01 July 2022
Susan Petrie
Maude Adams with incandescent lamps, 1922

Whether sailing across the stage as Broadway’s first Peter Pan beneath floodlights she helped create, or raging into battle as Joan of Arc, mesmerizing 15,000 people in an open-air performance that she produced, actress Maude Adams was made for the spotlight. It turns out, Adams—quite literally—designed her own spotlight, too.

Born in Utah in 1872, Adams was on stage at two months old, accompanying her mother into various acting venues. By the late 1880s, Adams made her New York City debut, and in subsequent roles, earned a reputation as a prolific, tireless, and captivating performer. She was reported to have acted in 1,500 performances of Peter Pan, which opened on Broadway in 1905, and The New Yorker magazine described Adams as “America’s most popular actress.”

But Adams was also an inventor who understood lighting circuitry, and a deeply collaborative stage manager who sought new ways to improve the audience experience. Her visionary set designs included provocative, ephemeral effects created by an interplay of materials, scenery, color, shadow, actor placement, and avant-garde illumination. In the early 1900s, however, carbon filament lamps were limited.

During this period, incandescent lamps—today’s light bulbs—were a fantastical technology made in various shapes and sizes. Used to illuminate private cars, homes, and shop windows, they were also replacing the gas-powered lamps used in public streets, stadiums, and theaters.

While a vast improvement over expensive and dangerous gaslight, limelight, and arc lamps used in theaters, these carbon filament lamps—though safer and easier to use—were fragile, dim, and poorly suited for the dynamic effects required by Adams. They emitted only 8- or 16-candlepower, roughly equivalent to today’s 25-watt bulb. Furthermore, the filaments were finicky.

Undeterred, Adams collaborated with an industrial lighting engineer named Bassett Jones from 1905 until 1915 (Jones would go on to design the 1939 New York World’s Fair night-lighting show), and together they experimented with gas-filled lamps and tightly coiled filaments.

Patent no. 001884957.

In 1909, Adams’s production of the Joan of Arc story, The Maid of  Orleans, set new standards for industrial production: in addition to its own freestanding powerplant, the epic production featured a series of colored lighting cues designed by Adams to organize dozens of actors navigating a set of 200 stagehands and one thousand extras. Adams also played the lead role.

When she retired from acting in 1919, Adams  funded a research lab in Schenectady, New York, close to General Electric (GE), seeking ways to improve the power and adaptability of incandescent bulbs for theaters and newer color film technologies.

Collaborative relationships developed with such innovators as American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North) and mathematician and electrical engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz. In 1922, working with both GE and Eastman Kodak, Adams oversaw the production of the world’s then-largest incandescent lamp. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, this tungsten-filament bulb measured 18.5 inches high and 12 inches in diameter, reaching 30,000 watts and emitting 60,000 candlepower of illumination.

When GE filed patents for the lamp in the early 1930s, Adams was listed as lead inventor on three parts: the huge lamp (illumination device), its cooling apparatus, and filament stabilization. Her innovations provided much-needed wattage and freed lamps to be moved, rotated, and adjusted without damaging the filament.

Adams died in 1953. A 1956 letter written by Bassett Jones to Adams’ biographer described her as “the greatest production artist this country ever saw.”

While Adams may initially appear to have been a lone female in a landscape of light and glass, a look behind the curtain reveals a robust history of women working as skilled labor in the incandescent lamp manufacturing industry.

When Thomas Edison filed his patent for an incandescent lamp in 1879, there were no industrialized systems for electrifying houses, streets, or cities, nor were there mass production capabilities for the glass blank, or envelope, that housed its fragile mechanicals.

For a time, Edison employed a skilled glassblower, Ludwig Boehm, to create the blanks for prototypes. Once the bulbs moved into larger scale production, Edison recognized that women and girls were best suited to the complex manual task of assembling the lamps.

According to Paul Engle, an independent researcher familiar with glasswork who has traced incandescent bulb employment through census records, women were recruited as glassworkers as early as 1882 at the newly formed Edison Lamp Company. Ads in The Boston Globe sought “tubulators” and “stem makers” to work at the Harrison, New Jersey, facility.

Scientific American, which illustrated the complex process of lamp assembly on its 13 April 1895 cover, described the steps, with terms such as “flashing in,” “insulating,” “bridging,” “sealing,” “exhausting,” and “capping.” Several of these steps required a light and fast touch, while others required proficiency with heat and fire—flame working—to manipulate the blank, delicately and precisely heating, perforating, and sealing it.

“A girl twirls the elongated end of the bulb in a flame, seizes the end of the mount with tweezers, and gradually closes the lower end of the bulb around the lower end of the leading-in wire tubes, fusing them together and properly disposing the filament in the center of the bulb….This is termed ‘sealing and sinking,’” the magazine noted.

By 1889, Henry Morton, president of New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology, observed that “Hundreds of girls are employed in all the delicate and skillful manipulations involved in the glasswork of these lamps.”

As the industry progressed, women remained involved. A 1910 government report titled “Conditions of Women and Child Wage Earners in the United States, Glass Industry, Vol. 3,” tabulated that, of the eight largest incandescent lamp manufacturers, 3,300 of their 4,123 lamp workers were female. “The industry now is almost completely in the hands of women.”

In the mid-1920s, full mechanization began to reduce the number of women involved in bulb manufacture. But, for close to 40 years, they played a leading role in bringing light to our everyday lives.

Susan Petrie is a writer and editor and holds an MFA in poetry from Bennington College.


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