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From Candles To Christmas Lights, UPS Exhibit Traces History Of Electric Power

The strings of bright lights that hang all around us during the holidays provide cheer for many people in the depths of winter.

But imagine a time when only the very wealthy could afford them and Christmas trees were lit up with candles. An exhibit at the University of Puget Sound explores the history and the future of electric power. 

Thomas Edison created the first strand of Christmas lights in 1880. He used them to decorate the outside of his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey as a kind of advertisement for the wonders of electricity.   

But it took nearly 50 years for the custom of light bulbs on Christmas trees to catch on, says physics professor Amy Spivey.  

“In the early days of electric power, the way customers were charged was by the number of light bulbs that they had installed in their homes, not particularly the amount of energy that those light bulbs used,” she said.  

Spivey says it wasn’t till after electric meters were installed in the 1910s and '20s that lighting became more affordable. 

Credit Courtesy University of Puget Sound
Courtesy University of Puget Sound
A galvanometer, for detecting an electric current, designed by Schaar Scientific Company.

The exhibit, called Sparking Imaginations, traces the history of electric power with documents and artifacts. Interactive displays show how it’s generated. And Spivey says researchers also wanted to contribute to conversations about the future of power generation in the U.S.

“The projection is that our electrical energy use in the next 20 or 30 years will increase by about 20 percent over what we’re using now. And to meet that, if you were just going to meet it with increased number of nuclear power plants, we’d have to almost double the number of power plants that we have,” Spivey said.

Spivey says sustainability, energy conservation and the ethics of power generation are hot topics among her students.

The exhibition will be up at the UPS library in Tacoma through Jan. 15. (It is closed over the holiday break and reopens Jan. 5. Its hours are Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to