Watts Up, Doc?

updated 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN THAT FIRST LIGHT BULB WENT ON over Hugh Hicks's cradle back in 1923, another—an inspiration of sorts—flashed on over his infant head. "Lying in his crib, he would look up at the light bulb and reach for it," remembers Hicks's 95-year-old mother, Emily. "That was the beginning. After that, all he seemed to care about was light bulbs."

Seventy years later, Hicks has polished that childhood enthusiasm to a very high gloss. Now a fourth-generation Baltimore dentist, he is also the owner of the world's largest light bulb collection (he has about 60,000) and curator of the Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting—a hissing, flickering, arc-spitting wonderland on the ground floor of the downtown town house where Hicks has his dental practice. "I just like light bulbs," Hicks says cheerily. "Always have liked 'em! Fascinated by 'em!"

Among his most prized bulbs are the world's largest (four-feet tall, it can operate only in 30-second spurts), the world's smallest (a pinpoint light used to inspect missile parts) and even some that were handcrafted in Thomas Edison's New Jersey lab in the 1870s. There is a cockpit light from the Enola Gay, the plane that carried the atomic bomb to Hiroshima, a small lamp from Nazi Heinrich Himmler's staff car, and a 9,000-watt arc lamp used for night space shots. But Hicks's affection embraces lowlier luminants too. "Maybe Mozart was put on this earth to compose beautiful music, and I was stuck here to bring out the importance of the hermetically sealed light bulb to a civilization that so frequently takes it for granted," he says.

Maybe so. In any case, Hicks's museum, which opened 32 years ago, now draws some 500 visitors a month. The tour—free for guests despite the $360 monthly electric bill his bulbs generate—also includes instruction on the correct way to handle light bulbs ("one hand under the base and the other hand supports it from the side"). Boasts Hicks: "I have never broken a bulb of merit."

And he has had his chances. As a youngster, he spent his free time filching bulbs from trash cans, condemmed buildings. even department stores. "Once when he was 7, we lost him, and when we finally did catch up with him, he was following a store employee around, a man with a step-ladder who was changing light bulbs," remembers mother Emily. "Every time he removed a bulb, the employee would hand it to Hugh, and I high would slick it in his blouse."

He followed his obsession through dental school where "he was always taking me around to some old building that was being demolished, so he could pick up a bulb or two," recalls friend and fellow dentist Donald Hobbs. Even as a World War II Navy dentist, he found time to rescue a jumbo brass lighting fixture from the about-to-be-demolished Vanderbilt mansion in New York City.

But few adventures compare with Hicks's Great Paris Subway Heist of 1964. On vacation in the City of Light with his wife, Mary Louise (who died two years ago), Hicks spotted a string of antique bulbs illuminating the tunnel in the Place de l'Opera metro station. "Those things dated back to 1910," he says. "They had even survived the German occupation of World War II. They were dim and filthy dirty, but I knew I had to have one." Ignoring his wife's warnings, he quickly unscrewed one. "Poof! The entire tunnel went black," says Hicks, who managed to grab two more on his way out of the darkened station. "I showed my wife the bulbs, and she said, 'We'll get back to Baltimore, and then I'm going to divorce you.' "

Instead, she accompanied him on another bulb trek to Moscow in 1983. After waiting in line an hour and a half to buy Russian bulbs at GUM, the department store on Red Square, "I found it easier to simply heist 'em out of the sconces in the lobbies of hotels and public buildings," Hicks says. "Of course the KGB was everywhere, following all the tourists, yet they never interfered. I guess they figured, 'Let this nut have a bulb. Let's just get him out of the country.' "

Now a bulb consultant to the Smithsonian Institution, Hicks has lately been pondering the future of his own museum. He has talked to Baltimore officials about willing it to the city, but the father of two (and grandfather of four) would prefer keeping it in the family. Says the bulbman: "I just pray there's a grandson coming along with a fascination for the electric light bulb."

TOM NUGENT in Baltimore

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