The original electrical system in the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (AIB) was not intended to provide artificial light; it operated the telephone, telegraph, clocks, buzzers, and burglar alarms. The building was designed to take advantage of natural daylight, rather than electric light, to illuminate the collections. Nighttime illumination of the exhibit spaces was considered unnecessary, since evening use of the exhibition spaces hadn’t been considered.

Ironically, the museum’s first official function, President James Garfield’s Inaugural Ball, was a nighttime event. Electric light was used for the occasion, but was limited to two “powerful” lights in the Rotunda and a few lights outside. This marked one of the first times a public building in Washington, D.C. displayed electric lights. Gas fixtures provided lighting in the offices; gas piping was installed in all halls to allow for the possibility of lighting the exhibits in the future.

The Brush-Swan System

View of the interior decorated for the James A. Garfield inaugural, 1881Before long, gas lighting was replaced with electric lighting throughout the building. The Brush-Swan Electric Light Company, founded by lighting pioneer Charles Francis Brush (1849–1929) and using an incandescent lamp patent obtained from English inventor Joseph W. Swan (1828–1914), organized an exhibit in the museum’s lecture room of their storage battery system. They placed a battery in the room and connected it to 40 Swan incandescent lights, charging the battery with a dynamo (electrical generator). After the exhibit ended, the company left the dynamo in the lecture room. The entire museum was lighted for the first time with electric lights on February 26, 1883; by the end of that year, all of the exhibition halls had been wired for electric light and it was possible to light one or all of them simultaneously. In 1902, funding was secured for “a complete installation of wires and fixture throughout the Museum building.”