In 1894, the idea of providing the electrical industry with a closed room where it could showcase the beauty and qualities of its products in an ideal setting was first submitted to the organisers of the second Antwerp Universal Exhibition. This proposal was very well received, but was presented too late and was not implemented for material reasons.
However, the idea of transforming the electricity compartment into a veritable "Palace of Light" was taken up again on the occasion of the Ghent Universal Exhibition. Its author, Mr. Mourlon, presented it to the Executive Committee in January 1912, which supported it without hesitation.
The committee of the Electricity group decided, in a meeting held on 18 September 1912 under the presidency of Baron Empain, to officially sponsor the Mourlon project and to make the Palais des Lumières a real centre of attraction. The first idea of this palace, developed and completed by the addition of a floral decorative part and a luminous fountain, seemed so happy that an organising committee was immediately formed. It was composed of Messrs Charles Mourlon, president; Vital Françoisse, Léon Gérard and Jules Kessel, vice-presidents; Louis Mettewie, secretary; Fernand Van de Wiele, treasurer; Philippe Bède, Lambion, Emile Closset, Auguste Danthine, Henri Dehousse, Trophime Delville, Auguste Demblon, D. Robert Goldschmidt, Greyson-Defuisseaux, Alexandre Grosjean, Maurice Lambert, Albert Lambot, Edmond Leclercq, Henri Pieper, Edouard Rouvroy, Maurice Travailleur, Charles Van der Stuyft, Eugène Van Meerbecke, Emile Vincent and E. Uytborck, members.
The Chambre syndicale des électriciens belges was responsible for the organisation and management of the hall.
The Executive Committee of the Exhibition assumed all the costs of lighting and fitting out the premises; it made available to the community a vast and superb hall of 2,400 square metres. This admirably situated room was adjacent to the machine gallery, with which it was connected; its main façade ran along the great Avenue des Nations.
For the elaboration of the project and its realisation, the initiator of the Palais des lumières found precious collaboration within the Chambre syndicale des électriciens and in the community committee, and especially in Mr. Mettewie, the devoted secretary of Group V.
In a circular dated 28 September 1912, the committee, after having explained the project, appealed to Belgian electricians to collaborate in this unprecedented work.
This appeal was heard; the largest Belgian electrical companies took part in the community exhibition; the efforts of the organisers were crowned with success. The Palace of Lights was unanimously considered to be one of the most remarkable attractions of the Ghent World Fair.
One of the main organs of the Ghent press gave a very happy description of it: "It would be almost impossible," wrote the Bien Public, in its issue of 17 June 1913, "to give even an approximate idea of the enchantment of this brilliant compartment.
The visitors are dazzled, without at any moment, thanks to the most happy combination of the nuances and the tones, they can have the eye tired. Everything that the most brilliant luminaries have achieved is surpassed here in indescribable proportions. It is a spectacle which literally wrings cries of admiration from everyone. "
The decoration of the Palace of Lights was executed with great taste by the members of the Belgian Electrical Industry Association, with the collaboration of the Association's architect, Mr. Emile De Nève.
In the centre, a luminous fountain, executed in collaboration by Mr. Dupont for the sculptural part and by the firm Rouvroy of Ghent for the electrical part, showed the wonders that can be achieved by means of electricity.
The main lines of the hall, the water jets and the waterfalls were illuminated with coloured lamps to magical effect. While it is already so difficult under ordinary conditions to protect electrical installations from the effects of humidity, it was not feared that electric lamps projecting light from the bottom of the basin and giving the water multicoloured reflections would be completely buried in the main basin. The ceiling of the palace was studded with small lamps in garlands following the movements of the velum. At the junctions, brighter spots were obtained by means of semi-matt lamps with 300 candles.
The contours of the stands were designed with small one-candle lamps. Attractive decorative motifs with the attributes of electricity and large candelabras made of electric beads completed the decor.
It is not possible to make a complete study of all the Electricity groups in the Palais des Lumières, but as a memorial to this beautiful manifestation of the Belgian electrical industry, it is only fair to mention the companies that took part.
In the first rank, we must name the most important and at the same time the most complete and the most remarkable by the diversity of the products exhibited, thus showing the enormous effort made in order to fight with full success against foreign competition in all the branches of the electrical industry: the Ateliers de construction électrique de Charleroi. Bell telephone manufacturing C°; The Antwerp telephone and electrical works; L'Union des exploitations électriques; the Société anonyme de téléphonie privée; the Société Energy-Car, (anc. Braun et Tudor); Henri Dehousse et Cie; Ecole pratique de télégraphie sans fil de Laeken; Société belge d'électricité, éclairage et force motrice; Société anonyme franco-belge pour les applications de l'électricité; Société anonyme des accumulateurs Tudor; Société l'industrielle d'accumulateurs; la Centrale électrique du Nord; Société anonyme des Usines à cuivre et à zinc de Liège; Société anonyme Union des Tramways; Anciennes usines Defuisseaux; Société belge pour la fabrication de cables et fils électriques; Collectivité des électriciens belges; Société électrique J. de Paifve et Olivier; Société John Cockerill; Charles Vanderstuyft & Cie; Edouard Rouvroy (Gand).
To this list of the main exhibitors of the Palais des Lumières, we must add the name of Mr. De Nève, the talented young architect to whom we owe the plans of this palace.
He exhibited the various plans with all the drawings submitted by him to the Executive Committee of the Ghent World's Fair for the Palace of Lights, as it was adopted and realised for the wonder of the visitors.
In the palace built by Mr. Emile Dupont, contractor, visitors came into contact with the wonders of electricity; they could see the progress made and the considerable efforts of Belgian engineers and industrialists.
This extraordinary development is due to the admirable invention of our compatriot Gramme who, as we know, began his work in 1867 with the invention of alternating current machines. In 1869 he devised his direct current machine and in 1872 built his industrial dynamo.
It was from this time onwards that it was possible to achieve these marvels which have astonished, are astonishing and will continue to astonish, thanks to what the future holds for all those who are interested in the multiple applications of electricity.
It should also be remembered that the inventions in the field of military telephony and telegraphy due to Belgian army officers, Messrs Waffelaer, Renard, Nothomb and Tollen, were adopted in all countries.
As for the telephone and telegraph industry in Belgium, represented by the large establishments successively created in Brussels and Antwerp, no other country has given it the same importance,
no other country has given it a greater extension, as we were able to see when visiting some of these important installations in Ghent.
Finally, was it not from Belgium that this happy initiative, encouraged by a very high and powerful intervention, started with a view to the immense development to be given to wireless telegraphy and telephony and which resulted in these remarkable installations created by our fellow countryman Dr Robert Goldschmidt?
It is not rash to assert that Belgium was the cradle of the electrical industries and of some of those great inventions that have aroused the astonishment and admiration of scientists and industrialists.
Moreover, it is not only in the electrical field that the Belgian mechanical engineering industry occupies a leading position; it is second to no other country in the manufacture of large motors of all systems. In this respect, the Machine Hall next to the Congo Palace and the Railway Hall proclaimed the perfection of the tools and the finish of the large construction workshops, such as the Société Anonyme des Anciens ateliers Van de Kerchove and the firm Cards, from Ghent. The framework of this Golden Book prevents us from describing in detail the imposing engines in front of which the amazed crowd of visitors stopped; but we are pleased to proclaim the demonstration of high industrial power given by Belgium in the Hall of Machines.
©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle & Internationale de Gand 1913