Friday, August 3, 2012

Sir Goldsworthy Gurney

People with any connection to automobiles often ask me if I am related to “the” Dan Gurney, of auto racing fame. I’m always happy to respond that yes, I am a cousin. Dan S . Gurney is known for his incredible achievements in automobile racing.  He is also known for his kindness, consideration, and his humility.
I’m also related to other famous Gurneys, my brother, James Gurney, the author of Dinotopia and blogger and author in art. 

Jim’s son, also Dan, is a rising star in the world of traditional Irish music.
But there are other Gurneys in my family who are famous, notably the guy, Sir Goldworthy Gurney who invented the rolling stretcher we all call “gurneys.” Thanks to him, Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, people make jokes about my name in hospitals. My daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Gurney in New York hears jokes about gurneys on a regular basis.
My summer reading has turned up information about Sir Goldsworthy that I did not know. It’s in a book by Bill Bryson titled At Home
It turns out that Goldworthy also invented the limelight. Here is an elegant and bright light connecting Sir Goldsworthy and my brother, Jim, who has written a best-selling book titled Color and Light. 
from At Home by Bill Bryson
Fires in public places became a great worry, too, especially after the development of a now-forgotten but lively form of illumination known as the Drummond light, names for a Thomas Drummond of Britain’s Royal Engineers, who was popularly be wrongly credited with its invention in the early 1820s. It was in fact invented by a Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, a fellow engineer and an inventor of considerable talent. Drummond merely popularized the light and never claimed to have invented it, but somehow the credit became attached to him and has remained there ever since. The Dummond light, or calcium light as it was also called, was based on a phenomenon that had been known about for a long time—that if you took a lump of lime or magnesia and burned it in a really hot flame, it would glow with an intense white light. Using a flame made from a rich blend of oxygen and alcohol, Gurney could heat a ball of lime no bigger than a child’s marble so efficiently that its light could be seen sixty miles away. The device was successfully put to use in lighthouses, but it was also taken up by theaters. The light not only was perfect and steady but also could be focused into a beam and cast onto selected performers—which is where the phrase in the limelight comes from. The downside was that the intense heat of limelight caused a lot of fires. In one decade in America, more than four hundred theaters burned down.Over the nineteenth century as a whole, nearly ten thousand people were killed in theater fires in Britain, according to a report published in 1899 by William Gerhard, the leading fire authority of the day.


James Gurney said...

I remember reading that besides the steam carriage, Sir G. G. was quite the innovator in the properties of superheated metals! There's a good book on his life by Dale Porter which describes his lectures and demonstrations of oxyhydrogen blowpipes. One of the uses was the "magic lantern" show which was commonly used until the limelight was replaced by carbon arc lights.

Katherine said...

Well, I think Gurney is a great name. You're all very special!