VARI*LITE® is the brand name of one of the first automated variable-color lighting systems to be created. Their automated lighting fixtures are commonly used in theatre, concerts, television, film and corporate events.


The VARI*LITE® company was created in 1981 by Rusty Brutsché and Jack Maxson who were running Showco, a lighting and sound rental company for the concert touring industry. Showco had been looking for a way to automate colour changes on their lighting fixtures. One of their developments was a dichroic colour mixing system complete with it's own metal halide lamp source. It was at this point they realised that by adding only two more motors they could make the light move.

A prototype was built and demonstrated in London to the British band Genesis (band) who decided to invest in developing a system for one of their tours. The engineers returned to the USA and developed the VARI*LITE® Series 100™ system. The Series 100™ system made it's debut on the Genesis (band) "Abacab" tour on September 25, 1981 in Barcelona Spain with 50 VL1™ luminaires and a custom built console. The VL1™ luminaire differed in many ways to the prototype they had previously demonstrated. The VL Zero was essentially a dichroic colour fading wash unit. The VL1™ still used dichroic colours, but mounted onto 3 wheels each with 7 filters plus and open position. This enabled a wide range colours that could be instantly selected in less than a tenth of a second. They added a 4th wheel with 5 beam apertures and 2 gobos. From their own console they could remotely control the colour, beam , intensity and position of each fixture. The primary engineers who developed the Series 100™ ( and the later Series 200™ ) system were Jim Bornhorst ( Optics ), Brooks Taylor ( Software ), John Covington & Tom Walsh ( Electronics ). The Series 100™ system was a complete lighting system and was only available for rental complete with trained technicians and operators. [cite web
title = About Vari-Lite
publisher =
date = 2008-10-09
url =
accessdate = 2008-10-09
The VARI*LITE® luminaire manufacturing and sales division ( brand, assets and intellectual property ) were sold to the Genlyte Group in 2002. The rental division of the company retained the console part of the company and continued to develop the Virtuoso™ console product line. The rental division was eventually purchased by PRG ( Production Resource Group ) and to this day still has a close relationship with Vari-Lite. Subsequently the Genlyte Group owning the VARI*LITE® brand has since been bought by Royal Philips Lighting. [cite press release
title = Philips Completes Acquisition of Genlyte
publisher =
date = 2008-01-28
url =
accessdate = 2008-03-15

Series 100™ System

Launched in 1981 the Series 100™ system comprised of a proprietary control console, the VL1™ luminaire and all the required electrical and data distribution equipment.


The console communicated with the luminaires using a proprietary protocol. The protocol was transmitted over a balanced line unidirectional serial data link, and simply told each fixture where each parameter should be ( in a similar way to DMX512 ). The console comprised of three components. The console face panel, a computer rack consisting of 19 inch Eurocard (printed circuit board) modules and a separate 3 1/2 inch disk drive unit.

The consoles face panel internally had two processors ( RCA 1802 processor ), one for the buttons, encoders and faders on the face panel, and one for an external monitor display. The monitor had a graphical display of the luminaires in the lighting rig and was used to select luminaires for manual control. The face panel was linked to the computer rack by a serial data link to send and receive commands to the computer rack.

The computer rack comprised of two components. The control rack section ( a 19 inch 2U module ) housed the control, intensity, pan/tilt and color/beam processor sections ( RCA 1802 processor ), and a cue memory rack section ( 19 inch 1U module ) which held the EEPROM memory for storing the cue information for 32 luminaires. Additional cue memory racks were added to expand the console in increments of 32 up to the maximum of 96 luminaires.

The disk drive was a separate unit and communicated with the computer rack via a RS232 link. The drive used 3 1/2 inch single sided floppy disks.

The consoles had 239 cues ( numbered 1 to 239 ), 16 matrix cues ( allowed intensity to be split across 8 faders ) and 64 Chases. There were 4 playback areas of the console.

The direct recall section allowed cues to be recalled and stored. The console did not have the ability to assign timing to cues, so cues recalled in the direct recall section would be in zero seconds ( or as fast as the luminaire could do it ).

The cross fade control section allowed manual crossfading between 2 cues using 2 faders. Only intensity and pan/tilt could be cross faded on the faders. The colour and beam parameters would bump in when the cue was recalled in the cross fade section. It was common on cue sheets that operators used to run a show, to specify if a cross fade cue was 'bump and fade' ( bump colour/beam then cross fade intensity/pan/tilt ), or 'fade and bump' ( cross fade intensity/pan/tilt then bump colour/beam ).

The chase control section allowed a maximum of 64 chases. A chase was built by specifying a range of cues and a speed to step through the cues.

The matrix control section allowed the operator to store a look as a matrix cue and then assign the luminaires intensity to 1 of 8 faders.

VL1™ Luminaire

The VL1™ luminaire originally used the GE Marc 350 metal halide arc lamp. The Marc 350 lamp had an integral cold mirror reflector and ran at 350 watts with a rated average life of 50 hours. Intensity was controlled by a mechanical iris at the front of the light driven by a DC servo motor. The colour mechanism consisted of 3 wheels each with 8 positions. 7 positions on each wheel contained dichroic filters. Beam was controlled by a 4th wheel of 8 positions. 7 metal gobos could be glued onto this wheel. The standard configuration was to have 5 circular beam size aperture gobos and two patterns. The wheels were driven by DC servo motors. Pan and tilt were driven by DC servo motors.

The luminaires would receive data and power through a single 9 pin connector. The original fixtures would only run on 110 volt power supplies. A 2 digit thumbwheel switch on the upper enclosure was used to select the channel the luminaire should respond to.

Later modifications to the VL™ luminaires included using the HTI250 metal halide arc lamp which also involved replacing the lamp power supply. Adding anti-chatter boards to the colour and gobo wheel servo drives to stop the wheels vibrating and making a noise ( caused by servo hunting ). Units at Vari-Lite Europe were also modified towards the end of the life of the VL1™ to allow for configuration to operate on 110 volts or 240 volts.

DMX512 to Series 100™ Interface

To give the VL1™ a new lease of life, an interface was developed to convert DMX512 protocol to the Series 100™ protocol. This allowed the luminaires to be run from any DMX15 compatible console.


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