Scanning the Past: A History of Electrical Engineering from the Past

Submitted by Bob Morrison, Editor

Copyright 1996 IEEE. Reprinted with permission from the IEEE publication, “Scanning the Past” which covers a reprint of an article appearing in the Proceedings of the IEEE Vol. 84, No. 5, May 1996.

Fireless Fireworks: Lighting at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915

Eighty years ago this month, Walter D’Arcy Ryan presented a paper at a meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) on the illumination of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Ryan had served as Chief of Illumination for the Exposition and he also served as the Director of the Illuminating Engineering Laboratory for the General Electric Company (GE). American poet Edwin Markham characterized  the spectacular Exposition lighting as “the greatest revelation of beauty that was ever seen on the earth.” Ryan’s paper, as published in the 1916 volume of the TRANSACTIONS OF THE AIEE was lavishly illustrated with color plates showing illuminated buildings, towers, fountains, and other features of the Exposition. This blending of aesthetics and illumination engineering produced perhaps the most elegantly illustrated technical paper ever included in the TRANSACTIONS.

The lighting system at the Exposition was said “to have initiated a new era in the art of illumination” through the use of screened floodlights combined with relief lighting, rather than strings of lights to outline structures. Ryan wrote that the lighting of the Exposition “appealed to the imagination and feelings of the masses, and carried a message much the same as painting or music.” Rather than designing the system for maximum efficiency from a narrow engineering point of view, he had sought to bring out “the architectural beauties” of the structures “in the most effective manner, bathed in a harmony of color.” However, the design work had been done in a highly scientific manner based on preliminary tests and calculations performed at the GE llluminating Engineering Laboratory .

One of the more interesting features of the Exposition was the so-called “Tower of Jewels,” which contained more than 100,000 “novagem jewels.” Cut from glass having a high index of refraction, these “jewels” were mounted to move in the wind while illuminated with projected light. The tower was flooded by light from a series of arc light projectors which were equipped with screens to enable variation in color. Red relief lighting filled in shadows cast by the flood lights.

Another technique used to entertain spectators was the “electric-steam color scintillator” which combined beams of colored and white light from a battery of searchlights with smoke and steam to produce “fireless fireworks.” This was said to provide “artistic color combinations and blendings impossible with ordinary fireworks.” The visual effects were further enhanced by means of a steam locomotive operated at high speed with its brake on to produce “great volumes of steam and smoke. ..which, when illuminated with various colors, created a wonderful spectacle.” The scintillator used a suite of 48 hand-controlled arc projectors, each equipped with seven colored gelatine screens, enabling diverse lighting effects.

An “electric kaleidoscope” illuminated the glass dome of the Palace of Horticulture with light from 12 projectors which produced beams “intercepted by revolving color screens and shadow bars” before passing through a system of revolving lenses. Two 95-ft high fountains located in the Court of the Universe were highlighted by means of 96 lamps in 12 rows which consumed 144 kW of power. The extensive use of colored gelatine screens in the Exposition system enabled the operators to use green illumination on March 17, orange on Orange Day, and red on the ninth anniversary of the “burning of San Francisco.”

Ryan also directed other lighting extravaganzas including lighting Niagara Falls for a month in 1907 by means of 44 searchlights with color screens, but the Panama-Pacific Exposition proved to be his greatest tour de force. Those members of the AIEE who did not attend the Panama-Pacific Exposition must have felt considerable astonishment and delight upon receiving that issue of the TRANSACTIONS containing Ryan’s paper with its marvelous color-plate illustrations.

James E. Brittain
School of History , Technology and Society
Georgia Institute of Technology