On this day – April 13

On the evening of April 13, 1915 the Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrated “Illumination Night” in honor of Walter D’Arcy Ryan – the founder and first director of General Electric’s Illuminating Engineering Laboratory whose visionary lighting would become one of the most enduring memories of the PPIE.

According to Laura Ackley, author of San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915:

“Prior to 1915, standard practice for architectural illumination was a technique called ‘outline lighting,’ in which rows of tiny lights traced cornice lines, windows, and other architectural elements. Unfortunately, this yielded a “skeletal” delineation, the gaps from burned-out bulbs were distracting, and often the glare from so many exposed bulbs caused eye fatigue.

With his designs for the PPIE, Ryan sought to change lighting art decisively. “Contrary to general expectation, there will be no outlining of the Panama-Pacific Exposition buildings with incandescent lamps,” he announced.

Fortunately for the engineer, world’s fairs typically were showcases for new technologies, including illumination. Although lighting infrastructure did not exist in many parts of the country, the new construction of fairs allowed for the installation of the latest technology. After Thomas Edison’s development of the first practical electric light bulb in 1877, every fair since had featured the newest in illumination technologies, all variations on outline lighting. Illumination was considered critical because fair organizers wanted to maximize attendance by allowing patrons to remain after dark.

Also, because expositions were not permanent, there was more room for experimentation and even failure; and since fairs and exhibitions were a good way for the industry to introduce the public to new products, corporations often donated money, equipment, and the work of their best engineers and designers. Ryan later estimated that General Electric spent $52,000 (about $1.23 million in 2012) creating and supporting the PPIE’s illumination department.

Yet Ryan was after more than pure utility. He admitted that his designs had inefficiencies from an engineering standpoint, but he was aiming for artistry, not merely adequate engineering.

Four nights prior to the opening of the PPIE, thousands of expectant citizens stood in buffeting rain and wind on the streets above Harbor View and gazed down on the dark Exposition grounds to witness the final test of the lighting scheme. At 10:00 p.m. a select group of dignitaries, including poet Edwin Markham, left an organ concert in the Exposition’s Festival Hall to brave the elements on the exposed Esplanade fronting the bay. Suddenly, 2.6 billion candlepower burst forth from the miniature Morro Castle just off the Marina, and a great fan of colored light, called “The Great Scintillator,” filled the sky. For two hours the tenacious spectators witnessed the most enduring innovation of the PPIE, its spectacular illuminations.

A battalion of specially trained marines rotated and dipped the forty-eight giant spotlights of the Scintillator in a precision drill, interweaving and circling the beams into a prismatic aurora that touched the Marin hills and Alcatraz Island. Comets and planets spun as if captive inside the gigantic glass dome of the Palace of Horticulture. As colored spotlights centered on the Tower of Jewels, the spire was draped in a lambent veil. Tens of thousands of varicolored gems limning its cornices sparkled like giant versions of falling raindrops. In the courts of the Exposition, fountains gleamed, two giant “candles of glass” glowed, and sculpted serpents spat plumes of fire toward an eighteen-foot-diameter glass sphere that appeared to writhe with life from within. The Palace of Fine Arts was bathed in emerald light.

Poets, as a rule, are not noted for verbal restraint, so Markham took especial care to note he was not exaggerating the splendor of the effects. He wrote: “I have to-night seen the greatest revelation of beauty that was ever seen on the earth. I may say this meaning it literally and with full regard for all that is known of ancient art and architecture, and all that the modern world has heretofore seen of glory and grandeur. I have seen beauty that will give the world new standards of art, and a joy in loveliness never before reached.”

Ryan was vindicated. All the effects he had laid out so minutely on paper were successful. The combination of purely spectacular effects, as well as practical architectural lighting, set a new standard. One viewer said, “There was no more skepticism after that, nor were any further slighting remarks heard as to the ‘art of illumination,’ or regarding Mr. Ryan’s qualifications as a creative artist.” A close look at each of Ryan’s effects reveals how the illuminating engineer was able to blend technology and art.

Three nights a week, wide spokes of chromatic light swept the skies above the Marina, weaving and dancing through hundreds of vivid patterns. The Great Scintillator was the PPIE’s splashiest illumination effect, culminating Ryan’s long fascination with light transmitted through vapor.

Legend held that he had been inspired while watching a train pulling up a grade one night. The Pan-Pacific Press Association’s history of the Exposition stated, “The fireman opened the firebox door to throw in a shovelful of coal, then shut the door while he was filling his shovel…. This gave a weird effect; the smoke curling up over the engine cab, then the flash of light illuminating the black smoke for an instant, then darkness, then another flash and again darkness.”

In 1907 Ryan lit Niagara Falls using three batteries of searchlights located between one-half and three-quarters of a mile from the falls. He installed a smaller, one-million-candlepower prototype of the Scintillator at the Hudson- Fulton Celebration of 1909 in New York.

The Great Scintillator at the PPIE was his ultimate achievement in this medium. The miniature Morro Castle, patterned after Caribbean prototypes and complete with a tiny lighthouse, extended into San Francisco Bay on a spit of land near the Yacht Harbor. Here, forty-eight three-foot-diameter projector spotlights were arranged in two tiers. The weatherproof pier supporting the lights sheltered colored screens, filters, resistors, distribution circuits, and motors for machines that generated various effects.

Each searchlight was installed so it could swing both horizontally and vertically. New programs were created daily, and four section sergeants megaphoned instructions to the company of marines who moved their lights as though under a symphony conductor’s baton. Color screens of “gelatine were mounted in wooden frames, and supported by chicken netting,” and the colors projected were changed on the fly. Pacific Service Magazine recounted the drill: “On receiving a color command, an apparently wild scramble ensues, but in five seconds the screens are in place, the lamps trained to position and, behold! The Aurora.” The famed San Francisco fog was a distinct asset to the Scintillator, creating a wonderful canvas for the plumes of colored light. Ryan, however, prepared for those occasions when the fog failed to appear. Flagpoles nearby were actually perforated steam tubes, and, when needed, a 224-ton Southern Pacific locomotive, mounted above the ground and running at the equivalent of a mile a minute, provided copious smoke and steam. Ryan even had the engine painted to match the cream-colored faux travertine of the palaces so the train would not “make an inharmonious blot adjacent to the Exposition buildings.”

The Scintillator beams became a medium for “fireless fireworks,” as pyrotechnic bombs exploded and loosened hoses sent plumes of steam writhing into the shafts of light. The fanciful names of these effects included “Fighting Serpents and Octopus,” “Birds of Paradise,” and “Aladdin’s Lamp.” The show usually ended with an American flag of colored mortar smoke hundreds of feet long drifting slowly toward the bay through the Scintillator’s rays.

Ryan described the experience:

‘You take up a position anywhere on the Marina or North Gardens and wait for the signal gun…. [A]n Aurora Borealis will reach from the Golden Gate to Sausalito and will extend for miles in every direction. Wonderful Scotch plaids appear in the sky and one is sure to be impressed by the weird ‘Ghost Dance’ or the ‘Spook’s Parade’ of the beams. The north façades of the Exposition are illuminated in ever-changing colors.…Fireless fireworks, mammoth steam effects, some rising to a height of over 100 feet, including the ‘Devil’s Fan,’ ‘Plume of Paradise,’ ‘Fairy Feathers,’ ‘Sunburst,’ and ‘Chromatic Wheels,’ are novel features. Explosions of mines produce great banks of smoke giving forth radiations of every known tint and shade. Sunset clouds burst forth in the night, strange and grotesque figures move across the sky illuminated by the concentrated rays of the searchlights. Flags of all nations float through the air. Artillery thunders, driving belching smoke into the blaze of artificial glory.'”