Every single day, he saw the light

Mount Vernon has grown darker, but his glow lingers


May 12, 2002|By Holly Selby

Even in Baltimore, a city filled with true characters, Dr. Hugh Francis Hicks stood out like the beam of a lighthouse - singular, bright, unwavering. His profession may have been dentistry, but his passion was light bulbs, and he rarely met one he didn't covet. The founder and director of the Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting, he died Tuesday of a heart attack at age 79.

A few years ago, as he led a visitor through the basement of the Mount Vernon townhouse where he displayed what may be the world's foremost collection of electric light bulbs, Hicks described his lifelong love affair with bulbs large and small, and offered a few insights into the psyche of the collector:

"I began collecting as a child. I started with everything - a light bulb coming my way was put aside carefully in a box or a drawer or whatever. Whether it was Christmas lights or a lamp bulb.

"I remember my father and I were down on Light Street once, and they had these huge lamp poles back in the late '20s - I was born in '23, so it was the late '20s - and they had these very, very large incandescent light bulbs and I saw a man changing one and I asked my father to stop and get it. He asked the man if he could have the old bulb, and the man said, `Sure. Take this one, too.' So I wound up with two. They were definitely my favorites for a long time. ...

"Now as we go on around the museum here, you'll see an interesting case with many, many tiny, little bulbs in it. We have about 60,000 pieces in our collection. We have about 8,000 on display. We have a cockpit bulb from the Enola Gay - documented by one of the crew members. Then we have two headlight lamps from, of all notorious cars, Heinrich Himmler's Mercedes-Benz. ...

"About 12 years ago, the Johns Hopkins University was given a $4 million grant to study collectors. Now, the idea was not to study one or two collectors, but go all around the world and find out what makes collectors tick. So they hired two psychiatrists and three psychologists and one of their first stops was here.

"Their visit wasn't anything you could have fun with - I mean, you're surrounded by psychiatrists. Well, I tried to explain that I was always very, very enthused with the electric light bulb. I was always fascinated with it as a child. An art form or whatever. ...

"I saw I wasn't penetrating, so I thought this is the time for the hooker - so I told them the truth:

"That the greatest bulb collector of all time was William J. Hammer, who worked with the Edison group, and he was their chief engineer. William J. Hammer collected 130,000 electric light bulbs before 1900. All different. And I said, `Mr. Hammer died the month that I was born. Do you believe in reincarnation?'

"End of interview. `Thank you, Dr. Hicks, for talking with us. Bye-bye now.'

"About a year and a half later, Hopkins published its monthly [report]. That monthly was dedicated entirely to collectors. For the 4 million bucks, this is what the American citizens got: Collectors collect for the fascination of the object, not its monetary value, not for exchange, not for trading. Just for the fascination."

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