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ART : Bright Idea : A father-daughter team from Pasadena have invented a light source that may help preserve museum objects and cut costs too.

October 23, 1992|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Putting light on the subject is not always a good thing when it comes to art or historical documents.

"We are losing part of our heritage because it is fading away," said Edwin Robinson, lighting engineer for the National Museum of American History in Washington, D. C. Robinson, who will retire from that post this year after 24 years of service, has long warned museums that inappropriate lighting has caused severe fading in paintings, drawings and documents.

"Take the Declaration of Independence, for example," he said, speaking from his office at the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian system. "The signatures are so faded that just about the only one that can still be read is John Hancock's.

"It is a very serious problem."

The possible solution--one that could revolutionize how museums, galleries and archives display light-sensitive art--will soon be in use at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park. Following a promising small-scale test this summer of a fiber-optic system invented by Jack and Ruth Ellen Miller of Pasadena, the museum is outfitting an entire gallery with illuminators that eliminate the heat and parts of the light spectrum that can cause fading.

"It's very exciting," said James Nottage, museum curator. "There are wonderful things in this collection that we have been afraid to show because of the damage light can cause. And there are other items that we could not show in light bright enough to bring out the detail.

"This system could change all that."

The installation of the new system, which will light the artifacts, costumes and documents from the Old West in the museum's Spirit of Romance Gallery, is scheduled to be completed in November. Eight of the new illuminators, each of which has 32 separate fiber-optic lights that can be individually focused and filtered, will replace the 57 standard incandescent lights now used.

As an added benefit, the museum will realize an estimated 70% energy saving. The new system not only consumes less electricity, it reduces air-conditioning costs because of the far lower levels of heat emanating from the lights. The savings are so dramatic that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is donating almost $20,000 toward the costs of installing the system in the gallery and a study of the results.

The grant is one in a series that DWP has given to public and commercial institutions for the installation of energy-savings equipment. But according to Ned Bassin, DWP manager of project analysis and support, this is the first time that the department has given this kind of support to an experimental program.

"It's important to us because if this system proves itself, it has implications for several of our customers," Bassin said. "Not only museums, but also some retailers could use this."

And if the system eventually goes into wide use, it could bring an incredible bounty to the Millers, a friendly father and daughter team whose workshop-laboratory is in a decidedly low-tech, modest building in a residential section of Pasadena.

But don't let appearances fool you. They are not struggling amateurs.

Jack Miller, 62, is the kind of inventor that children's books used to celebrate. His more than 100 patents, which line a wall in one room of the workshop, include a few for lighting equipment. A popular type of track lighting he invented, for example, is sold under the Capri trade name. But Miller is a generalist, earning patents also for weapons, exercise equipment, toys, auto-repair devices, medical monitors and a vacuum cleaner.

"I have a lot of fun," said the bespectacled Miller, who wears a white lab coat when he works. He walks briskly from room to room, showing off a few of his inventions. There is a small, energy-efficient fluorescent light that screws into a regular incandescent lamp socket, a vinyl truck tailgate that can also be used as a promotional sign, and a new line of flying Transformer-type toy gliders.

Probably his most famous invention is a laser light device that can trace the path of rounds fired from a high-powered automatic weapon. It was seen by millions watching the Persian Gulf conflict on television.

He also invented a trapeze-like device, popular in the 1980s, that allowed people wearing gravity boots to swing into an upside-down position. "I bought my Rolls-Royce with the profits from that one," he said, with a chuckle.

But lights have long had a special allure for him. "For years," he said, "whenever my wife would turn on a light switch, she never knew what would happen."

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