Electric lighting at the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition (MCIE) was the largest single installation of arc lighting that had ever been attempted in any part of the world in the 19th century. The lighting that was adopted comprised of 1,000 arc lights and 2,000 swan lights, and illuminated 35 acres of the exhibition. The electric light machines were also on display in the Victorian Machinery Annexe, showcasing the advance of science in the development of electricity.

Lighting up the Night

The 1888 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition (MCIE), celebrating a century of Australian settlement, was held at the (Royal) Exhibition Building where nearly 40 countries sent their exhibits with approximately 2 million visits over a six month period.

From the time it was decided to hold a Centennial Exhibition in Melbourne, it was agreed that the exhibition would be held not only in the day time but also in the evening. Beginning in the morning at 11:00am and closing in the evening at 10:30pm, lighting up the night received the earliest attention (The Age 1888, p. 9). It was decided that electricity was to be used for greater illumination of the exhibition at night, with gas that was fitted to all parts of the building as standby in case of an accident (The Age 1888, p. 9).

Occupying a whole court to itself, electric light machines were exhibited by the Australasian Electric Light Power and Storage Company in the Victorian Machinery Annexe from 7:00pm to 10:30pm (The Argus 1888, p. 6). Visitors were astonished to know that the installation was the largest single installation of arc lighting that had ever been attempted in any part of the world at the time. (The Argus 1888, p. 6). This marvellous exhibit showcased the advance of science in the development of electricity and was far superior to anything that had been done in previous years (Northern Star 1888, p. 2).

The 'Brush System'

The method of lighting that was adopted was known as the 'Brush System' and comprised of 1,000 arc lights and 2,000 Swan incandescent lights (The Argus 1888, p. 6). To generate the electricity that was required for the illumination of 35 acres of exhibition space, 49 powerful dynamos were employed that were driven by three pairs of horizontal engines (The Argus 1888, p. 6). The arc lamps were hung by pulleys from the ceiling so that they could be raised and lowered while the smaller incandescent lighting was distributed over areas such as the picture galleries, wine cellars, the space under the galleries in the Main Hall, the aquarium and the offices (The Argus 1888, p. 6). The Brush lamps were said to have been brilliant and were hung at a particular height to prevent them from affecting the eyes of the visitors while their dazzling brightness was modified by the use of a glass globes that resembled porcelain (The Age 1888, p. 9).

To the delight of the visitors in the picture galleries, the smaller lights were placed close to the ceiling which created a shadowless effect enabling the fine arts to be seen to advantage while in the aquarium and fernery, electric lights were used to create a pretty effect as they were placed in spots where it would have been impossible to flame light (The Age 1888, p. 9). Visitors could also see grand illuminations at the lake with thousands of fairy lamps as well as Japanese illuminations under the supervision of Messrs Brock and Co.

However, praise and admiration for the electric lighting that illuminated the exhibition was soon frowned upon and condemned due to a fire that broke out in the Victorian Court on the 26th of November at 6:35pm. The fire occurred at the stall of Messrs. Kitchen's exhibit of stearine statuary also effecting Kyle's Budgeree Eucalyptus Disinfectant stall and Messrs. Winn and Langley of Howie's Place hair dressing saloon (The Age 1888, p. 5). Fortunately, at the time of the fire, the building was almost empty (The Age 1888, p. 5).


'Fire at the Exhibition' 1888, The Age, 17 November, p. 5.

'Illumination of the Building' 1888, The Age, 2 August, p. 9.

'Interesting Machinery' 1888, The Australasian Sketcher, 6 September, p. 138.

'Melbourne Exhibition' 1888, The Northern Star, 16 June, p. 2.

'The Electric Light' 1888, The Argus, 2 August, p. 6.

More Information