Light art of which Lumia is a part of has a heritage that has been explored for at least 300 years or more. That exploration has taken many forms from considering the relationship between color and music to the creation of theatrical projections from scenic wonders to transcendent phantasmagoria. This exploration has ranged and raged from philosophical discussion (even as far back as Aristotle, who suggested a correspondence between sound and color, based upon varied mathematical relationships) to experiments with whatever technologies of the era would allow. Mind you – that these ideas were being thought about way before Laserium existed. Hell, they were even in play before electricity had been discovered.

Intuitively on a philosophical level there has always been a consideration of some kind of a “linkage” between color and sound, an idea first described as ‘Visual Music’ – with the synthesis of both becoming a greater medium that either alone, at least according to its proponents. Consideration yes – but agreement not always.


Mary Hallock-Greenwalt, a musician and an inventor of her own color organ, noted in the early 1900s that…”there is no octave to color and that color has no harmonics.

1SCRIABIN.pngYet on the other hand, another noted musician / light artist, Alexander Scriabin claimed there was a symmetrical relationship between color and sound which he described by assigning equivalent notes to certain colors within his musical scores. With every light artist working on their grand device, whatever relationship there was between color and sound was strictly an opinion defined by whatever projected device they could build.


Thomas Wilfred who first presented light art (known as Lumia or the art of mobile color) in the 1920s as a form of modern public entertainment was of two minds about Visual Music. On one hand he equated a Lumia presentation as an “opus,” and much of his references to Lumia were described with musical terminology as noted by Donna Stein (Thomas Wilfred: Lumia). Wilfred also believed that light was separate from music and that music was an accompaniment to light projection, rather than an interpretation of that music.

There have always been many theories about harmonic scales where certain musical notes might parallel certain colors. While philosophers might debate the finer points of a C flat being equivalent to green, it was the light artists who would defy all arguments and build unique color organ instruments to combine the two forms and let their devices speak in their own language of Visual Music, and have the audiences decide for themselves.


Victorian color organ converges music and color  into a singular viewing experience

Thus interpretations of music and color have converged in the creation of color organs as a projected illumination musical instrument to bridge both the worlds of light and sound simultaneously. Over time a few dedicated artists, musicians and lighting designers all experimented with the mechanics of illuminated art projection. The actual device to express Visual Music was known as a ‘color organ’ of which the first notable constructions of such a device emerged somewhere in the mid-18th century.

                         VISUAL MUSIC TIME LINE             

          who discovered what when

18th century

  • Although earlier experimentations have been documented, in 1725, French Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel proposed the idea of Clavecin pour les yeux which had 60 small colored glass panes, each with a curtain that opened when a key was struck. In about 1742, Castel proposed the clavecin oculaire (a light organ) as an instrument to produce both sound and the ‘proper’ light colors.


19th century

  • In 1877, US artist, inventor Bainbridge Bishop obtained a patent for his first Color Organ. The instruments were lighted attachments designed for pipe organs that could project colored lights onto a screen in synchronization with musical performance.
  • In 1893 British painter Alexander Wallace Rimington invented the Clavier à lumières.


20th century

  • In a 1916 art manifesto, the Italian Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra described their experiments with “color organ” projection in 1909.


  • In 1918, American concert pianist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt created an instrument she called the Sarabet. Also an inventor, she patented nine inventions related to her instrument, including the rheostat.
  • In 1921, Arthur C. Vinageras proposed the Chromopiano, an instrument resembling and played like a grand piano, but designed to project “chords” composed from colored lights.


  • In the 1920s, Danish-born Thomas Wilfred discovered an artistic light form known as Lumia, whose make up is defined by its components of ‘form, color and motion in a dark space.’ Wilfred goes on to equate Lumia as a space/time art. To visually demonstrate Lumia imagery, Wilfred created the Clavilux, a color organ, which was designed to project colored imagery, not just fields of colored light.



  • In 1925, Hungarian composer Alexander Laszlo wrote a text called Color-Light-Music; Laszlo toured Europe with a color organ.


  • Lightshows organically emerged by the mid-60s combining every visual projection medium that worked to converge as an illuminated visual collage that preformed mostly as a backdrop to rock & roll or classical music. A typical light show set up could employ any or all of the following devices film projectors, slide projectors, ‘wet cell’ projectors lasers (when available) and of course Lumia projectors.


  • Laserium with the use of lasers became the first continuously running commercial laser light show. The first Laserium show opened to the public on November 19, 1973, and was founded by Ivan Dryer and Dr. Elsa Garmire, a California Institute of Technology physicist both interested in laser light art. The show originally preformed in planetariums around the world, combined music (both Rock and Roll and Classical) and light into a single medium and popularized the ideas of visual music as a public entertainment.


21st century

How much of a big deal this is depends on what era you look at. At one time this was philosophical fodder to be endlessly debated. Nowadays, it’s a matter of accessibility, in the 1990s it was as simple as purchasing a ticket to Laserium. Today it’s a phone ap or a screen saver, most likely in some form of Electric Sheep.


Electric Sheep is a computing process for animating and evolving ‘fractal flames’, which are in turn are displayed as a screen saver. In effect, it becomes a mini lightshow slowly weaving its morphing forms across a computer screen as a visual interlude.

The debates about color and sound have now become personalized and more related to one’s taste in synesthetic media and a person’s like or dislike for musical or artistic light shows. As for Lumia, the light that was once lost is slowly being “discovered” again, and while it may not be the 8th Fine Art as Wilfred declared, it is certainly a fine art to be appreciated as it is.



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