John McKernon     

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The Beginning - "Electric Assistant"

Way back in the dark ages of 1973, John McKernon took his first lighting class at the North Carolina School of the Arts and learned that a Dimmer Hookup and Instrument Schedule both listed the exact same information, just in a different order. He understood WHY, but it still seemed like an awful lot of work, especially after he'd worn down three pencils doing one class project...

Flash ahead to the spring of 1979. John is designing for Pauline Koner's dance company and also running (with Campbell Baird and David Lockner) a scene painting shop. The shop is doing very well, but the headaches of doing the weekly payroll aren't much fun, and he's the only one who seems to know how to do it. So while John is on tour with Pauline, the payroll molders. And the touring, while fun, is getting tedious. The company is doing the university circuit, where the light plot is basically the same at every stop, but the actual equipment used is different, depending on what's available at the theatre. So once or twice a week, John has to draw up a new light plot that's pretty much the same as the old one - but not. To help make things easier, he's been using a generic sort of plot where all the lights look the same, but the dimmer hookup and instrument schedule still have to be hand written and customized for each and every theatre.

On that fateful April weekend in Raleigh NC, the dancers have run off to the beach. John is stuck in his room, doing yet another boring set of paperwork. He has writer's cramp and thinks to himself "@#$@#$ An idiot could do this! A machine could do this..."

Whereupon he hops in the car and drives to the local shopping mall, where he looks at these new things called Personal Computers. There's a dealer selling Apple computers, which look really fun, but they don't have anything that would help with the paperwork problems. So he wanders into Radio Shack, where he finds the TRS-80. It has 32k of RAM and a cassette tape to store programs and data. But even better, it has software called Tape Payroll! And it comes with Tape BASIC, a programming language that the salesman assures him he can use to write his own lighting paperwork program. And the whole thing only costs $3,200...

So back to the hotel room to call Campbell to convince him that the shop needs to spend the money. Next call is to Alice, John's younger sister, who once took a programming class in high school. She says BASIC's pretty simple and that he could probably write something with it.

So the appropriate $$ are paid, and on his return to New York, John sits down and starts work. Campbell becomes a "computer widow" as the years slog by... John adds 16k of RAM (for another $700), teaches himself BASIC and Z80 assembler and eventually produces "Electric Assistant", something only he could love.

But it works! Never mind that it takes half an hour to save a 100-unit show onto the cassette tape for safekeeping whenever the computer is turned off.


In 1982, the first floppy drives became available for the TRS-80, so John upgraded to a TRS-80 Model 3, with TWO floppy drives! At the time, he's teaching at SUNY-Stony Brook, and the IBM PC has just been announced. Bob Heller, who's the technical director of the Fine Arts Center, thinks John should port the software to the IBM platform. Well and good, but John doesn't begin to have the $$ to buy one of these expensive new computers. Bob buys the Fine Arts Center an IBM PC and lets John use it during off hours to start work on rewriting everything in QuickBASIC, including all that finely-crafted Z-80 assembly code that is unusable with the processor used in IBM PCs.

Then Theatre Crafts publishes an article on lighting software. John's reaction is, as usual, "MINE does it better than that!" - and promptly calls Rosco to see if they're interested in selling ALD. Bob Saturn (who handles software for Rosco) likes it, but suggests that it needs to be made less idiosyncratic. If John will do that, they'll sell it for him.

The bad news is that John then has to buy a new PC-compatible computer, a Compaq "luggable". The screen is tiny, but it has two floppy drives and 512k of memory and only weighs 28 pounds! By this point, the program is called "ALD", runs on MSDOS, and is up and running on the Compaq. Rosco starts selling it, and the pennies start trickling in. Fortunately, John keeps designing lighting to pay the rent...

Change follows change, and it's obvious that yet another new version needs to be released, with a new and more professional name (not to be confused with Alpo, a popular dog food). But what to call it?

So in the spring of 1988, John sits down at lunch with Clifton Taylor and Ken Smith, and they make a list of every conceivable name - silly, stupid, clever, or weird -- and eventually winnow the list down to about 20 possibilities. Next is asking Ken Billington and the other folks in the office which one(s) they like. Nobody agrees (of course, they're lighting designers!), but eventually "Lightwright" wins version 1.0 is released on August 1, 1988.

Still running on MSDOS and written in QuickBASIC, Lightwright 1 supports up to 2,000 lights and requires 640k of RAM and takes up 677k of disk space (fillng two 3.5" floppy disks). A hard drive is recommended, but not required. There are a total of 51 new features, including Equipment Details, a Circuit Name column, and parentheses around channel numbers.

Lightwright 1.1 is released in 1989, with 14 changes that include template counting, footnotes, and dimmer types.

1982-1984 ALD

By 1985 John is working for Ken Billington, who has his own custom-made lighting software, not ALD. One night John and Ken are in the office using Ken's software to update the paperwork for "Grind" (a big Broadway musical). Changing the color of the "Wreath" special to "N/C", the software promptly changes the purpose of the light to "N/C" as well. So they go to the purpose and edit it back to "Wreath", whereupon the software changes the color of every light with "N/C" to "Wreath." Changing the colors back to "N/C" changes all the purposes to "N/C". John's Compaq has been sitting in the office unused for some time... In desperation, they fire up ALD and re-enter all of the "Grind" paperwork, print it out, and go home exhausted.

After that, Ken decides that he really does like ALD, but wants it to do MORE and buys his first IBM PC... John listens and learns from Ken and other Broadway-level folks in the business, adding features to make their work easier. In 1985, ALD/Pro 1.0 is released, followed quickly in 1986 by ALD/Pro 2.0

1985 ALD/PRO


The Apple Macintosh first came out in 1988, and designers such as Craig Miller started using it immediately. Craig and others were eager for a Mac version of Lightwright, but it wasn't until 1992 that John bought his first Mac and began writing Lightwright 2, for Microsoft Windows and the Mac. The graphical interface required completely rethinking Lightwright and writing all new code in two new languages, Visual Basic for Windows and ZBASIC for the Mac.

Lightwright 2 was released in January 1995, on 3.5" floppy disks. It still supported 2,000 lights, channel numbers up to 999, and dimmer numbers up to 2000, but it brought new ways of editing the worksheet and the first Layout tab, where the printed paperwork's appearance could be viewed and modified graphically.


Lighting for shows has grown dramatically by now, too big to fit into Lightwright, especially channel and dimmer numbers, and designers clamored for more flexibility.

So in December 1998, Lightwright 3 is released. It comes on a CD-ROM and requires a hard drive. It's overall capacity rose to 5,000 worksheet rows and 3,000 channels and dimmers.

Lightwright 3 also included a Template column for the first time (though it did not include pictures of them). It also added support for up to 6 dimming systems and four user-definable number columns and four user-definable text columns. Lights could be dragged into any order for Instrument Schedules, and instrument types gained Device Types. Limits that filter worksheet data, counting, and printing also appeared for the first time. DMX Universes and "Universe format" were new for dimmer numbers, and up to 15 Marks were now available.

Lights gained unique identifiers (UID's), which made it possible to export data to other programs such as MiniCAD (now known as Vectorworks) and reimporting the data after making changes. The proces was cumbersome, but it was the first step toward future integration.


By 2005, maintaining separate code bases for Windows and Mac was proving to be a huge problem, and the software John had been using to write Lightwright had reached the end of it's useful life, so it was time for a major rewrite. Eric Cornwell recommended to John that he try a new software development package called RealStudio, which was used to write applications for both Windows and Mac from the same source code. Although the language was similar to that used in Visual Basic, it still meant a total rewrite.

One major feature John wanted to include in version 5 was an easy and reliable way to share data between Lightwright and Vectorworks simpler. Kevin Linzey was the engineer at Nemetschek in charge of Spotlight, and one day in a fast-food court at LDI, John and Kevin roughed out a simple way for the two programs to share data in almost real time by sharing a common .xml file. The next summer, John was on vacation at the beach when Kevin called to say that Nemetschek had approved implementing the feature, and they wanted it finished in a month. It eventually took them about 3 months, but when Vectorworks 2009 was released in late 2008, it included support for Data Exchange.

By the time Lightwright 5 was released in 2009, it included Data Exchange and also kept a complete history of who made changes in the worksheet and when, allowing users to reconcile changes made by multiple users of the same file. It also supported sharing data with Lightwright Touch, an iPhone app written by Eric Cornwell.

Other new features included a completely new way of tracking work notes, a wheel design window, a scroll design window, live instrument counts, pictures of gobos, color swatches, and (finally) the ability to open multiple Lightwright files at once.


Each new release of Lightwright brings new ideas from users, and there were lots ideas, so in August 2004 Lightwright 4 was released. City Theatrical took over sales and distribution and raised the price so that it was enough to cover the actual cost of development, so for the first time working on Lightwright became a viable career.

Lightwright now supported 30,000 worksheet rows and channel and dimmer numbers up to 32,000 (62 DMX universes). Unit numbers could now go up to 16,000 and there were six user-definable number columns and six user-definable text columns.

The worksheet window acquired a toolbar with View and Sort buttons and Bookmarks, and edited worksheet cells were highlighted in red, while Accessories (things like top hats) got their own column. Focus charts added a sketch area, and a new Focus Status column made it easy to see which lights needed focusing.

Instrument types got weights, default wattages, and "On Plot" status to show which worksheet rows were on the plot. Attribute Lists made it easier to document the extra channels required by moving lights.

Work Notes made their first appearance, though they were  confusing and inflexible and as a result were rarely used.

Like most other software, Lightwright 4 dispensed with printed manuals and instead included documentation as PDF's on the CD ROM with the application. It required at least 256MB of RAM (512 was recommended) and 35 MB of disk space.



When it was first conceived, Lightwright's dimmer column held dimmer numbers. Once the DMX 512 protocol became popular, the dimmer column held either the dimmer number or the DMX address, depending on how the electrician wanted to organize the show. This worked well for a long time, but once moving lights became common and the use of LEDs led to a huge increase in DMX universes, it was clear a dedicated DMX  Address column was essential. Lightwright 6 added that as well as a universe# column and a "local DMX" column, which held the address within each universe, and all three columns were linked. It supports up to 45,000 DMX universes.

Data Exchange with Vectorworks expanded in Lightwright 6, adding manipulation of label legends, XYZ coordinates, symbol rotation and inventory.

With the success of Data Exchange, it was time for Lightwright to make more connections. One thing John always wanted to do was to be able to bring up channels onstage from within Lightwright - to do a channel check, or during focus, or when troubleshooting. In the fall of 2014, ETC agreed to help make this possible by implementing Open Sound Control (OSC) in it's Eos family of consoles, and to add features so Lightwright could share information with the console. Version 6 turns channels on and off from within it's worksheet via a WiFi connection, it shares cue lists, groups, color palettes, and effects with the console, and it exports a special data file for Eos to set the patch and populate it's query tiles.

For many years, electricians have printed thousands of stick-on labels for every show. They use them on all kinds of lights, cable, connectors, adapters, and dimmer racks. They did this by exporting data from Lightwright, opening it in Excel, massaging the data and duplicating records, then sending it to Microsoft Word for further editing and finally printing. For years, they had been begging John to include label printing in Lightwright, and finally label design and printing became available in version 6.

Version 6 also added an instrument profile database, DIP switches, a DMX address map, multiple versions of paperwork, and new control and dimmer setup information. The worksheet added the ability to collapse entire groups of rows for easier viewing and navigation.

Lightwright 6 is now written in Xojo (the new name for RealStudio) and is too large to fit on a CD ROM.