Lighting the Way

Splash screen titled Lighting the Way: An Experiment in Participatory History

Lighting the Way launched in 2000 as part of an experimental project to investigate how the internet might be used to gather historical materials. Two dozen websites hosted by fifteen universities and professional societies—and two by the Smithsonian—collected materials related to a wide range of topics in the history of science and technology. Lighting the Way focused on latter-twentieth century developments in electric lighting, with a special emphasis on energy efficient devices. The site included questionnaires inviting individuals who produced, distributed, and used efficient light bulbs to provide information about objects, documentation, and personal stories they wished to share. Lighting the Way was retired in 2024.

The idea for the website began taking shape in 1995. Staff in the Electricity Collections at the National Museum of American History wanted to update the museum’s collection of lighting technology to support a refresh of the exhibition Lighting A Revolution. The refresh would include a new section on energy efficient lighting. At that time, the internet was still new to most people, many of whom did not have access. Staff recognized the new medium’s potential to spread historical information, but wondered if the internet could aid the collecting effort. They met at Standford University in 1999 with other history professionals thinking about that same question. With funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, participants built websites and began the “experiment in participatory history.” Ultimately the results indicated that the internet would be a good addition to historians’ traditional methods of gathering information. That may seem obvious today, but the potential of new technologies is never clear in their early years.

For access to electric lighting and other objects, you may search the Smithsonian’s Collections search site. For access to related archives, you may visit the museum Archives Center’s Collections page.


Website screenshot
This screenshot captures the home page of the former Lighting the Way website. View an archived site snapshot.