It caused a sensation in 1955 – the Spitlight, a light beam device that could project images onto cliff faces and clouds. But the futuristic device brought no joy for its inventor.
Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.
For its opening on 20 January 2021, the Solothurn Film Festival was able to offer a special attraction. The festival took place online due to the pandemic, but on the Landhausquai where the audience usually gathers there was a device that looked like a moon rocket. A backdrop worthy of a motion picture, which even made an appearance on Swiss national television. On a bright red Bedford truck sat a swivelling assembly that was clearly reminiscent of a skyrocket: the Spitlight, created in 1955 by Ticino inventor Gianni Andreoli. Translated literally, the German word for Spitlight, Lichtspucker, means ‘light-spitter’. It was no coincidence that the Spitlight was displayed at this location specifically. For several years the unusual projector has belonged to the Museum Enter in Solothurn, which has had the device refurbished and has now given it a glittering premiere.
When it was first demonstrated in the mid-1950s, the Spitlight was a thing of superlatives in every respect. It could project monochrome images over a distance of up to six kilometres. The lateral length of the image was up to 1,000 metres, so it was possible to project images onto clouds or cliff faces. If neither clouds nor cliff faces were present, ammonium chloride, shot into the sky with rockets, was used to create artificial clouds. Until well into the 1980s Andreoli’s invention was the biggest projector in the world, and is entered in the Guinness Book of Records.At the heart of the projector blazed a Super Ventarc carbon arc lamp made by the firm Edgar Gretener AG. Gretener developed this ultra-bright lamp from 1948 onwards, primarily for the Eidophor television projector, a design created by ETH Zurich. The carbon arc technology generated high-intensity light similar to electrical welding at temperatures of 5,000 to 6,000 degrees, and required huge amounts of energy. The Spitlight therefore had to be accompanied by its own 120 hp generator to provide its power supply; the generator produced alternating current for the projector’s rotating movements, and direct current for the carbon arc lamp. The device could be operated for a maximum of eight hours.
The Spitlight was the first projector of this scale – although searchlights with a range of up to 12 kilometres were already around during World War II, when they were used with anti-aircraft guns. These searchlights also used high-powered carbon arc lamps.Gianni Andreoli developed the Spitlight in 1954-55, and gave demonstrations in Switzerland, Holland and Monaco. But the remarkable device made its most spectacular appearance at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina di Ampezzo. Andreoli was on site with a whole team, and every evening for 14 days they created elaborate projections – the results of the races, advertising signs and the exact time were shown. Lines of text could also be projected. It was an elaborate operation; because of the intense heat, only metal templates known as gobos could be used. Projecting moving images, as was required for scrolling text, sports results and the time, required a lot of mechanical tricks on the part of the device operators.
The projector’s long odyssey
The advertising revenue from Cortina should have more than covered the Spitlight’s production costs. Unfortunately, the engineer from Ticino had become involved with a bogus financial backer, who had invested his money in the Spitlight in the hope of being able to participate in a lucrative business. The investor pocketed the money and set out to snaffle the projector as well. Andreoli got wind of the plan, and removed the Spitlight to a safe hiding place. This marked the beginning of a years-long odyssey. There were still occasional performances, but that was it.
After Andreoli’s death in 1971, the projector was all but forgotten. In the mid-1980s, technology journalist Claude Settele came across the metal gobos while looking for flea market goods among a colleague’s things, and finally found the Spitlight in a Lucerne suburb – sitting out in the open air. His immediate thought was that the machine must be preserved. The Verkehrshaus Luzern refused the offer, but the Technorama Winterthur, the Swiss Science Centre Technorama, showed an interest and took in the Spitlight, even though it didn’t have the money to restore the device. Headed by lead engineer Bernhard Stickel, a group of 22 engineers from the Winterthur section of the Schweizerische Technische Verband, the Swiss engineering association, spent more than 4,000 hours restoring the Spitlight, and on 25 October 1986 they handed it over to the Museum in operational condition.
In the 1990s the Technorama decided it was no longer to be a museum of the history of technology; instead, it was to be a science centre, giving the public a better understanding of scientific phenomena. There was no room for the Spitlight. The device was handed over to Winterthur electronics engineer Mark Ofner in 2014 – his task was to try and collect money and ideas for the device. That didn’t work either.
In 2019 representatives of the Museum Enter in Solothurn found out about the Spitlight, and the following year they used crowdfunding to raise 30,000 swiss francs for restoration. Entrepreneur Felix Kunz, founder and patron of the museum, chipped in another, larger sum. He plans to use the Spitlight as an eye-catching central feature in the Museum’s new building in Derendingen from 2023. At the same time, the projector is available for events. But projections such as those the machine used to create in the past are no longer possible today. The technology with the carbon arc lamp is too complex and fussy, and the result would no longer impress an audience that has grown up on laser light shows, says the Museum’s director, Violetta Vitacca.Gianni Andreoli was an engineer to the core, and knew exactly what he was doing. The Ticino native was already developing aircraft engines at an early age. One of his inventions could be seen at the Swiss National Exhibition in 1939: the smallest functioning radial engine, at 2.3 hp. After finishing his studies at the ETH in 1945, he worked at the Emmen aircraft plant. Later he devoted himself entirely to projection technology, first constructing a high-powered episcope which was patented in 1948 under the name Epistar. For the World Exhibition of Photography in Lucerne he built a huge projector, the P300. It was mounted on the Exhibition tower, which was also the event’s official emblem. The projector’s beam extended several hundred metres. Gianni Andreoli suffered a serious fall while setting up the P300, and had to spend a long time in hospital.Legend has it that he had the idea for the Spitlight, which he named P300S, while gazing up at the clouds. It’s quite possible that Gianni Andreoli was also familiar with Jules Verne’s piece ‘The day’s work of a journalist in the year 2890’. The French novelist imagined the future with: “Motorways a hundred metres wide are lined with skyscrapers three hundred metres high and illuminated advertisements are projected onto clouds.”
By the way, the letter P stands for Pininasch – that was Gianni Andreoli’s nickname. The engineer from Ticino stuck with projectors even after the Spitlight adventure. He developed a portable slide projector under the name Mitralux; in the 1950s Swiss police and firefighters used the device as a hand-held searchlight. Shortly before his death Andreoli tried again with another giant projector, which he named Super Nova. In the midst of this work, Gianni Andreoli died in 1971 at the age of just 52.
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