DON'T ASK Hugh Hicks why light bulbs have always held such fascination for him. He hasn't got a clue.
It started with a small box of early carbon-filament bulbs his grandmother gave him as a boy.
And in the 60-odd years since then he has bought, traded, inherited, found, fenced and "rescued" nearly 60,000 bulbs, 8,000 of which now constitute the Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting.
"There is so much in lamp history that is beyond belief," he said one recent afternoon, the closest he seemed able to come to explaining his long-burning passion for bulbs.
One of Baltimore's best-kept secrets, Hicks' private, ( by-appointment-only museum at 717 Washington Place nevertheless may be the most extensive and complete collection of lighting devices in the world. It is respected and consulted by the Smithsonian Institution and the Edison Historic Site museum in Menlo Park, N.J., and visited by some 8,000 people every year.
The 31-year-old museum, tucked into the basement of Hicks' brownstone dental office just north of the Washington Monument, will open for the first time today for walk-in visitors, from 5 to 7 p.m., as part of the Downtown Partnership's First Thursdays program, "The Sights of Charles Street."
Hicks' collection spans the history of light bulbs, from Thomas Alva Edison's first efforts in 1879 and his battles with competitors to a floodlight used to light the launch pads at Cape Canaveral. He's got the smallest and the biggest; a --board light from the instrument panel of the Enola Gay, the U.S. B-29 that atom-bombed Hiroshima; and the fluorescent tube that lit the Japanese surrender documents on the Battleship Missouri in 1945.
There are X-ray tubes, TV tubes, stereopticon projector lamps, Christmas tree bulbs and novelty lamps he can identify, and radio tubes he sometimes can't.
"I'm always looking for somebody with the expertise to identify some of these radio tubes," he said. "But most of the experts are long-gone."
He's also always on the lookout for new acquisitions.
"As a kid I would walk around the old mansions around here and ring doorbells," asking residents if they had any old light bulbs, and offering a package of new ones in exchange.
"One of the nicest ladies I met, at 14 W. Mount Vernon Place, a Mrs. Marberg, said she'd call me, and she did," he recalled. "She said, 'Here, I have a box for you.'" It contained some "very nice" old carbon-filament bulbs.
Hicks would also walk the streets of Baltimore at night, scrutinizing porch lights. When he'd spot one he liked, he'd "rescue" it, and replace it with a modern one.
"I'd want to be honest about it," he said.
In the years since then he has "rescued" bulbs from a Paris subway station (which went dark when the bulb -- wired to all the others in series -- was unscrewed) and from a Moscow hotel.
During World War II, while stationed with the Navy in New York, Hicks paid a demolition crew to liberate a hanging lamp from the hallway of Cornelius Vanderbilt's Fifth Avenue mansion. The place was wired by Edison himself, and the 100-pound lamp contained Edison bulbs from the early 1890s, and one from 1882.
Hicks' biggest score was an inheritance of 30,000 light bulbs left to him by a Detroit collector with whom he had corresponded and traded bulbs as a teen-ager.
"It took me six years to go through the collection," Hicks recalled. Each bulb was wrapped in two sheets of newspaper, which themselves became a collection.
Hicks' plans for his museum include a continuing search for a better home, and registration as a non-profit corporation, with a board to oversee its future. "I'm not getting any younger," said Hicks, who is 69.
For an appointment to visit the museum, call Hicks at 752-8586.
Downtown Partnership invites the public to visit 11 open galleries and special events along the 300 to 1300 of block of Charles Street the first Thursday of each month. For more information, call the Partnership at 244-1030.