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It must have seemed like a bright idea at the time

To some people, a light bulb is just a thin piece of glass around a delicate puzzle of wires. To Hugh Hicks, light bulbs are a burning obsession.

Hicks' light bulb collection is considered one of the most extensive and complete in the world. It is respected and consulted by the Smithsonian Institution and the Edison Historic Site museum in Menlo Park, N.J.

Ask the 69-year-old dentist about the time he snagged an unusual bulb from a Paris subway station _ throwing it into darkness _ and you'll get his impassioned account:

"It was in 1959 or 1960..


. I couldn't believe it, but the tunnel entrance was rimmed by bulbs from the 1920s! They had survived the war, damage from people, everything.

"So I thought to myself: One will certainly never be missed. I didn't know it, but these bulbs were in series, just like Christmas lights. So when I pulled one off, the entire line went out. You've never heard so much swearing in French in your life! I tried to put it back in but it wouldn't go back in, so I copped two more and walked away."

No bulb, it seems, is safe when Hicks is around. But a lifetime of collecting has earned him 60,000 bulbs, with 8,000 of them on display at his Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting.

Hicks has some of Thomas Edison's first efforts made in 1879. He also has a floodlight used to light the launch pads at Cape Canaveral _ a 9,000-watt arc light.

Other items include a dashboard light from the instrument panel of the Enola Gay, the U.S. B-29 that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, and the fluorescent tube that lit the Japanese surrender documents on the battleship Missouri in 1945.

He has the largest bulb created by General Electric to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Edison's first light bulb. The bulb, 4 feet high and 36 inches across, was displayed at the LaGuardia Airfield for the 1929 ceremony.

There are X-ray tubes, TV tubes, projector lamps, Christmas tree bulbs and novelty lamps.

He's at a loss to explain why bulbs are the light of his life. He once told researchers studying collectors from the nearby Johns Hopkins University of one possibility:

"Edison's chief assistant, William J. Hammer, had amassed a collection of 130,000 bulbs. I said, now this great collector died the month that I was born. Now do you believe in reincarnation?"

For an appointment to visit the Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting, call Hicks at (301) 752-8586.