The Electricity Collections

The Electricity Collections at the National Museum of American History document, preserve and present the history of electrical science and technologies. The Smithsonian established the Electricity Collections in 1897 to help convey a better understanding of the changes to our society stemming from the invention and adoption of electrical devices. The collections focus on American developments while placing them in an international context.

The exhibition, “Lighting A Revolution,” displays selections from the collection and explores the process of invention that Thomas Edison followed as he and his team invented a practical incandescent light bulb. “Lighting A Revolution” opened in 1979 on the centennial of the Menlo Park demonstration and features a bulb from Edison’s public demonstration in Menlo Park, N.J., on December 31, 1879. Early electrical appliances are also on display. The exhibition is organized into five sections: preconditions, invention, promotion, competition and consequences, each looking at a particular part of the process of innovation. The full exhibition is available online with photographs, descriptions of objects, and web notes of the physical exhibition.

The Electricity Collections consists of more than 25,000 objects organized into three general categories: electrical science (electrostatics and magnetism); electrical power (generation, transmission, lighting and appliances); and electrical communications (telegraph, telephony, radio, television and magnetic recording). Later additions include microwave devices, lasers, holography and microelectronics.

The Electricity Collections are part of the Museum’s Division of Work & Industry that includes artifacts, documents, photographs and oral histories relating to the industrial and business history in the United States. The Division also covers agriculture, natural resources, timekeeping, retail, food, mining, engineering, maritime, and road and rail transportation history.

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