06/22/2011 01:19 pm ET | Updated Aug 22, 2011

Knowledge Never Goes Out of Style: Resources and Research to Build New Old Technology

By Justin Downs

The work I have come to do is a mixture of idea and reality. The classical name for the work is Research and Development, and what it entails is making thoughts corporeal. World fairs are the cutting edge of where ideas that have become material are showcased. These exhibitions present to the world the future innovations that are going to affect and shape the lives of the participants.

Westinghouse: Men testing vapor lamp. NYPL, Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Digital ID 1686287

In all the fairs since 1851, lighting technologies have been presented to the public as major defining forces of future social interaction within cities, factories, and homes. Lighting technologies allow us to set the rhythm of our day without regard to external natural forces like the sun. In the world fairs we see the future as idea becoming the everyday material of today and so these fairs present themselves as spaces that are forever looking into the future. What is not seen though, at the time, is that by focusing on these new technologies of the future, a world's fair is simultaneously archiving the ideas and machines that have shaped our societies and lives.

This became clear to me while I did research in 2002 at The New York Public Library Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) for a client. This project was to build a 60,000-watt carbon arc lamp, exploiting a technology that had revolutionized lighting and changed society. Carbon arc lighting transformed how work was done in factories and how wars were fought utilizing mile-long search lights.

In time the carbon arc lamp was made obsolete by newer lighting technologies, as you can see in the 1939 World's Fair where carbon arc search lights illuminated the signage for the pavilion heralding the new future of lighting, which was florescent lighting. Carbon arc lights burn at incredibly high temperatures though, giving them the unique property of being one of the "truest" (full spectrum) lights there are. So to manifest this "true" light I could not use the most advanced lights of today but had to reference the "old future" of lighting -- carbon arc lights.

Justin Downs' modern carbon arc light undergoes testing in his lab. It is currently the largest functioning unit of its kind in the world.

To do this I combed SIBL's extensive collection of popular technical manuals, from World's Fair advertising, to old how-to-maintain lighthouses books from the 1800s, which were all preserved in the Library's closed stacks. As I scoured these manuals to recreate and rediscover this technology I could tell I was the first person to read these pages in over a hundred years. Some of the books actually would fall apart as I read them. This experience gave me the strange feeling of consuming the knowledge since it was evaporating with its use.

Once I had a base technical reference from the old manuals I was able to source and create new mechanisms to recreate and improve on the old lighting techniques. Two of the key discoveries found in the manuals were the reference tables for the effects of different feed angles for the carbon rods used in the lights and the chemical composition of the rods themselves. With these references I was able to find in India one of the last producers of lighting carbons and from the references found in The Manufacture of Electric Arc Carbons by George Tucker, was able to design new rods for the machine. From there a cycle of designing, machining, testing and redesign brings the machine to life.

When creating a new technology the calculus of use is the most valuable commodity, for if you do not have a frame of reference for a object you can never utilize it. A key without the reference of a lock is just a trinket, but given a context of possibility it can open steel doors easily. With these hundred-year old ideas found at SIBL a reference for this new machine was created and without them -- the largest currently functioning arc lamp -- would just be a trinket.

Justin Downs
Co-Founder Ground Lab

See Justin Downs' carbon arc light in action in the slideshow below. Check out more about the 1939-'40 World's Fair in the first edition of NYPL Biblion: The Boundless Library.

Recreating The Knowledge of the Past: The Carbon Arc Light


Author: Tucker, George. Title: The manufacture of electric arc carbons. Imprint London : "The Electrician" Printing & Pub. Co. ; New York : D. Van Nostrand Co., [1915?]

Author: Ryan, W. D'A. Title: Light and illuminating engineering. Imprint Schenectady, N.Y., General Electric Co., 1903.