Museum alternatives

UP FRONT

November 16, 1995|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,SUN STAFF

Here's a word association quiz: What does the term "museum" call to mind?

You thought of paintings and sculpture, right? Or maybe dinosaur bones, old aircraft or wax figures?

Bet you didn't think of light bulbs, tanks or code-breaking machines. Yet those and other unusual objects have found their way into carefully cataloged collections that offer unusually educational touring.

For example:

Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting, 717 Washington Place (Charles Street). Tours by appointment. Free, but donations accepted. Call (410) 752-8586.

Dr. Hugh Hicks stands in front of a glass case and asserts that the objects displayed inside represent nothing less than "the basis of our civilization today."

What are they?

Light bulbs. Light bulbs with tungsten filaments, to be precise -- the most important refinement of Thomas Edison's original 1879 bulb (with a cardboard filament). Tungsten created the best light and permitted the least expensive operation costs, bringing light to any human activity or mechanical development you can name.

The first 1906 tungsten bulb is here, in the Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting that Dr. Hicks maintains in the basement of a townhouse on the northeast side of Mount Vernon Square. (A practicing dentist, he treats patients upstairs.)

Two of the bases of Edison's 1879 bulbs are here, too, and so is the first U.S. patent issued to Edison for a bamboo filament light bulb.

You never saw so many light bulbs. The 8,000 or so that can be seen in the three-room museum are just a small part of his collection, for Dr. Hicks estimates he has 60,000 or so packed away in boxes.

"The value of the museum lies in the fact that it's the only one in the world that covers the whole history of the light bulb," he says.

He has the smallest light bulb ever made -- designed for NASA instrumentation and displayed under a 30-power microscope -- and the largest -- a 50,000-watt orb 30 inches across and four feet high, which was built in 1926 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Edison's first light bulb, "just to prove the United States at that time could build the biggest and the best." It was mounted at LaGuardia Airport in New York, but shone for only 30 seconds at a time or it would overheat.

About 300 people visit the museum every month, including school groups, tourists and researchers. Howell Wallace, a curator from the Smithsonian Institution, is cataloging the collection, "before my brain turns to tapioca" jokes Dr. Hicks, 72.

On a seasonal note, Dr. Hicks also says that he has the largest collection of Christmas light bulbs. And he eagerly points out the earliest such objects, which were no more than ornamental Christmas tree balls with a filament inserted.

*

U.S. Army Ordnance Museum, Aberdeen Proving Ground (on state Route 22 off I-95, with clear exit signs. Hours: 10 a.m.-4:45 p.m. daily. Free. Phone: (410) 278-3602

Why is a tank called a tank?

William F. Atwater, director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, seems delighted when a visitor doesn't know. He gets to tell the story again.

It seems that when the clanking, cannon-carrying machine was developed during World War I in England, it was classified merely, and logically: "Armored Fighting Vehicle."

But when being transported clandestinely by railroad, they were draped with dark tarpaulins arranged to make the railroad cars look like tank cars. And the illusion was reinforced for any spying eyes with lettering: T.A.N.K.

"It's the code name, but it stuck," beams Dr. Atwater , who presides over one of the world's largest collections of tanks and artillery pieces, which draws more than 200,000 visitors a year.

About 240 of the fighting machines sit in neat files on the lawn of the museum, including the most recent acquisitions: several Russian-built tanks salvaged from the desert of Iraq after the Persian Gulf War.

The largest exhibit is a pre-World War II gun with a 16-inch-diameter barrel, originally designed for naval operations but converted for Army coastal defense because its barrels became too hot during firing for repeated shipboard use.

And on a railroad track across the street from the entrance is a long-barreled cannon in desert camouflage paint that might look familiar to fans of war movies: a German K-5 railroad gun, bearing the name "Leopold," which provided the model for Hollywood's treatment of Alistair MacLean's thriller, "The Guns of Navarone."

A current exhibit (through December) also has a show business connection: a video and artifact display chronicling bandleader Maj. Glenn Miller's involvement in the American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Force, which he led in 1943-44, until his disappearance while flying over the English Channel in 1944.

Inside the museum are exhibits of smaller weapons, covering the history of military rifles and sidearms.

Mr. Atwater likes to point out a particular German rifle, the MP44, and attribute its development to one of the weaknesses of tanks.

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