Bassett Jones, Under Our Noses and Over Our Heads

This article does not pretend to encroach upon the purely scientific side of illumination. It merely attempts to indicate where the lighting engineer must look for his problem. He has not an a priori solution. His business is to meet the conditions at hand and to devise a scheme of illumination that will do much more than supply so many candlepower over a given area. Here lies the chief difficulty of his profession.
Bassett Jones, “On finite light sources,” a paper presented at a meeting of the New York Section of the Illuminating Engineering Society, April 14, 1910.

She completely revamped the whole art of stagecraft—setting and lighting…In my opinion, Maude Adams was the greatest production artist this country ever saw.
Bassett Jones, 1956.

At their best, some of our finest architects have managed to make their sway over nature appear natural. Yet there is a fundamental distinction to be made between nature and the built domain. The case is similar when we consider natural and artificial light. Lighting engineers, starting from the beginnings of arc lamps and low-wattage bulbs, gradually gained in their struggle to eliminate the harshness of the former and the inefficiency of the latter. At a critical point in time, two remarkable figures from different worlds worked together in a determined effort to bring the illusion of nature’s effects to that most artificial of worlds, the theater. One was a mechanical engineer by training, the other an actor who learned by doing. The engineer had an artistic side and the performer a technical one. The first was named Bassett Jones, the second Maude Adams. Jones is hardly remembered now, in spite of the work he did in lighting the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair; Adams will always be remembered as Peter Pan.

We see them in photographs, Jones the gentleman engineer, Adams uncategorizable but generally Edwardian, an odd duo of the mentor and her young male apprentice. The work of Adams and Jones is essentially invisible today because it was temporally evanescent. This is doubly so of Adams, who also worked, and was in fact better known, in the equally ephemeral world of performance. Adams is most widely remembered in our era for introducing the character of Peter Pan to the American stage in 1905. (J. M. Barrie had written the play with her in mind, but it received a London production before her own, definitive Peter could “charm New York.” This is a little sad, since she was one of the greats in the New York theater of the period. Born in 1872 in Salt Lake City to an actor mother, she first appeared onstage as a baby and played so many roles while still a child that she would later call her role as herself “the one I knew least.” Although she performed almost continuously until 1915, when she largely retired from the stage, she is hard to place as an actor, for she was not one of the great beauties who are instantly recognizable in the pantheon of early Broadway theater. She was rather an actor suited to challenging roles, her own favorite being Chantecler, in the play by Rostand—a commercial failure in 1911. She portrayed the Duke of Reichstadt in Rostand’s L’Aiglon (1900) and, in 1899, the eponymous heroine of Romeo and Juliet.’

Adams was also a serious scientific intellect with a specialization in electric light. Logically enough, she entered the field through an interest in stage lighting, and then came to run her own laboratory of lighting technology. As proof of her achievements we have the testimony of Jones, another successful lighting designer—but here, too, the history has grown unfamiliar and must be supplied.

Jones’ name meets with little recognition among New Yorkers today, yet he had a hand in many of the monuments we celebrate—most notably the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, where, as a consultant for the Otis company, he determined the needs and capabilities of the elevator installations. The degree to which we have forgotten him may be poetic justice: he referred to Manhattan as “the center of organized discomfort.” His idea of a harmonious relationship between people and the environment was defined by the island of Nantucket. That marine community, where he kept a home with its own private shellfish beds, was apparently an enduring concern; it was because he was motivated by a desire to bolster the local fishermen that Jones backed the frozen-food innovator Clarence Birdseye with both expertise and money, a decision that made his fortune. He was an engineer by training and temperament. In addition, he is, perhaps, inscrutable to us today.

Jones left both Stevens Institute and MIT without taking a degree with him, and it seems to have hampered him not at all. His aptitude for understanding the burgeoning technology of electricity apparently landed him the job as architect for the Granliden Hotel, a “fully electrified” hotel in the shingle style in Sunapee, New Hampshire.  His forte, however, was as a consultant rather than as a designer, although he was no slouch in the latter capacity. Working with Henry C. Meyer and operating first under Meyer’s name and later as Meyer, Strong & Jones, he oversaw the installations at the US Military Academy at West Point, the Soldiers and Sailors Veteran Auditorium in Pittsburgh, and the Tribune Tower in Chicago, among many others. It seems his artistic bent was decidedly affected by his interest in the theater, and theatrical lighting and color effects in particular. An extravaganza of colored light was staged as early as 1913 for the pageant of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts Architects in New York; sadly, I have found no illustrations of this event in color that might give some idea of its innovations.

Adams also was a profound intellect, and the most telling document in her archives is a note from Bassett Jones to her biographer, Phyllis Robbins, who did not include it in Maude Adams: An Intimate Portrait (1956; the note dates from the same year)

The Anchorage
Lake Ronkonkoma
Long Island, New York

Few people living today have any idea that Maude Adams possessed a keen scientific intuition. Dr. Willis Whitney, then Director, General Electric Research Laboratory asked me, “Where did she get it?” How many people know of her research laboratory at Schenectady?

Foolishly, and for some unknown reason, she refused to sign a tripartate [sic] agreement between Eastman Kodak Co., General Electric Co. and Maude Adams to establish a moving picture laboratory in Schenectady to operate under her direction. When she refused I gave her hell and walked out. What an opportunity! She would have been a rich woman in a few years. My God! Think of it! That was on the same scale as would have been an agreement between the U.S. Steel and the Standard Oil, and she turned it down.

There was never anyone like her on the stage. She completely revamped the whole art of stage craft—setting and lighting. That was her joy of the stage—not, as she said, “hopping about for a living”. In my opinion Maude Adams was the greatest production artist this country ever saw. I worked with her to carry out her ingenious ideas for ten years.

Bassett Jones

It is interesting to note that Adams is buried at Cenacle Convent at Lake Ronkonkoma; did Jones pay a visit to her gravesite in 1956?

Since Jones’ collaboration with Adams ended in 1915, he must have entered her story around 1905, the year of Peter Pan. That production seems to have brought the development of theatrical lighting to a critical point, when its producers set out to travel the show and faced the challenges its many effects entailed. In the period of transition from gaslight to electricity, stage lighting was a dangerous affair dominated by the arc lamp. When we think of electric light today, we take the bulb and enclosed filament for granted; but an arc lamp was simply two carbon rods mounted in a fixture. A powerful electric current jumped the gap between them, creating an intense and glaring light similar to what one might see when electric welding is performed. As the lamp was used, one of the rods shed carbon, gradually vaporizing, and to maintain the current the gap had to be adjusted, either manually or through a clockwork mechanism. The equipment was hot and inherently dangerous, and to keep it trained on an actor onstage was difficult and delicate work. In addition, the searing light did little for anyone’s appearance.

To fix the problem, Jones and Adams began experiments using gas-filled incandescent bulbs. Early incandescents (vacuum- rather than gas-filled) used low wattages and filaments that looked like rug-beaters; they were manifestly unsuited to movement. The breakthrough came with the ability to render tantalum (and later tungsten) ductile, so that it could be drawn into tighter coils, increasing efficiency. This is precisely the period when Jones and Adams began their experiments, and by 1915, their designs had reached a state of practicality. That year, however, their collaboration ended.

Within the next few years, working with the legendary General Electric engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Adams would develop larger and more powerful bulbs of the same type, reaching 30,000 watts (for movie work). This bulb was so large that a publicity photograph of 1922 shows a model holding it in her lap; to lift it aloft would be a struggle. As for Jones, in that same year of 1915 he published a four-part article in Electrical World, describing in detail various fixtures he had designed in consultation with the lighting manufacturer I. P. Frink. These ranged from interior floodlamps to color-mixing boxes, with Jones stressing the ability of the system to create effects of depth but also making it clear that there was at that point no reliable source to which designers could turn to find the necessary color filters. (This is some indication of the cutting-edge nature of his work and the effectiveness of the British blockade of Germany, where the best color cels originated). Jones mentions Adams only briefly in the article, and only regarding the demands of stage productions, rather than acknowledging her as an equal contributor.  Perhaps his note to Phyllis Robbins was an attempt to make amends.

Why the breakup in the very moment of promise? In 1915 Adams, always intensely private despite her fame, lost her longtime producer, Charles Frohman—he was a passenger on the Lusitania, torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland. She subsequently gave up “hopping about for a living” and disappeared into the heart of the Midwest, heading the drama department at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. There she stayed for the remainder of her working life, with occasional returns to the stage, no longer as a slip of a girl but as a woman of substance—as Portia, for example, in The Merchant of Venice in 1931. Lauded in the late 1930s with an honorary degree and a national broadcast of Chantecler by her students, she appears in a publicity photograph posing with an interior floodlamp—one of her own inventions, a fact evident to those in attendance but lost to us today.

Jones did not tarry over the lost promise of Adams’ “tripartate deal.” In a brilliant combination of interests and skills, and a sharp eye towards the future, he helped Clarence Birdseye perfect the technology for the flash-freezing (well, by the standards of the day) of fish, the principal product launching Birdseye Foods. Jones had a keen interest in Arctic exploration, compiling the Libris Polaris collection of books, manuscripts, and correspondence now housed at Columbia University (after being removed from the Explorers Club at member Jones’s behest, an insight into his character). He was able to compile personal experience (his knowledge of the fisheries of Nantucket), research (into accounts of the explorers on the preservation of food), and professional expertise (his uncanny ability to meld the technology of the day to the ideal he could envision with his knowledge of engineering and physics) into the realization of a successful mechanical plant. It made his fortune. He is chiefly known today for his work on high-speed elevators in consultation with the Otis Elevator Company. His articles on the subject reveal an observer as well as a theorist; he appreciates human behavior at the same time he is working to perfect a new system. It was physically possible to run the elevators of the Chrysler Building, for example, at twice the speed at which most passengers became physically uncomfortable. Jones performed this experiment himself, travelling faster than anyone since. Perhaps this experience led him to refer to Manhattan as “the center of organized discomfort.”

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