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In September 1935 the Victorian-era Exhibition Building was transformed into a dazzling moderne space for the Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition. The electricity and gas companies in Victoria were locked in a battle for market share and this exhibition played a major part in the rapid growth of electricity in Victoria during the 1930s. It also introduced a new approach to the presentation of the exhibits, where signage, materials and design were integrated into a coordinated whole by the leading Modernist architect, EF Billson.

Melbourne in the early 1930s was drab in appearance, reflecting the harsh Depression. Two major movements were responsible for improvements to the appearance and prosperity of the city – an increase in electrification and a new approach to architectural styling and finishes. In 1935, these were brought together in a dramatic way at the Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition, held at the Exhibition Building.

The Depression years had been calamitous for the building industry, with the value of building permits plummeting from £8 million in 1928 to £1.2 million in 1931.

The industry began to gradually recover in 1932–33, but the real improvement came in 1934, the year of Victoria’s Centenary, when the value of building permits climbed to £3.4 million. The Centenary provided impetus, with many building works commissioned, including those donated for public use by the chocolate manufacturer, McPherson Robertson. He provided over £1 million for the construction of Norman Seabrook’s Macrobertson Girls’ High School in South Melbourne and the Grange Road Bridge between Richmond and Toorak.

However, to the ordinary observer, the most obvious change to the city was the emphasis on light and colour in building exteriors. In Bourke Street, moderne department stores for retailers such as Myer, Buckley & Nunn, and Foy and Gibson were replacing a series of nineteenth-century theatres. Myer Department Store, for instance, was finished in a dazzling white finish called ‘Snocrete’, while Buckley’s Men’s Store boasted a series of colourful roofline friezes depicting the products for sale.

These exemplified the adoption of a new style of architecture, classified today as moderne, Art Deco or Jazz Age. At the time, this was simply referred to as the most modern or, in recognition of its origins, the Continental style. The design (or updating) of buildings in this style reflected a simple, elegant, uncluttered approach that depended upon form rather than ornament. Building finishes, both external and internal, introduced or emphasised a new range of materials, such as white metals (chrome, aluminum and nickel), vitrolite, terracotta, glass bricks, steel-framed windows with curved glass, and colourful linoleum. There were also improved construction methods, with specialised technology for lifts, lighting and commercial equipment.

Such techniques were employed for traditional building types, including schools, hospitals, theatres, shops, town halls, churches, offices and factories. But there was also a demand for building types with no architectural precedents: radio stations, petrol stations and garages, car parking stations and suburban picture theatres. Development of apartment buildings, particularly in suburbs such as St Kilda, Elwood and South Yarra, was also underway. These moderne architectural trends reflected those from overseas, particularly in the USA and in European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. Australian architects and designers were able to obtain overseas magazines for inspiration, and some had worked in Europe during the 1920s. Others had been able to travel to major cities to gain first-hand knowledge, including to those that were host to world’s fairs and expositions, such as Chicago (1933), Paris (1925 and 1937) and New York (1939).

The Centenary celebrations in Melbourne also highlighted the increasing use and importance of electricity in modern cities. For the Centenary, street lamps had smart new inverted reflectors added; the sixteen pylons at Princes Bridge had floodlit pennants at the top; and 1000 watt floodlight units were used to illuminate many office blocks, banks and prominent buildings, including the Treasury, Flinders Street Railway Station clock tower, Parliament House and the spire of St Paul’s Cathedral. Some buildings were lit by different colours on successive storeys, producing an effect similar to a layer cake.

Gas, coal and oil as sources of power were long established, but use of electricity increased during the 1920s and 1930s for domestic, commercial and industrial applications. Melbourne’s suburban rail system was converted from steam to electric traction between 1918 and 1923 and its cable tram system began to be replaced by an electrified system during the 1920s.The electricity industry was initially fragmented but was centralised after the State Electricity Commission (SEC) was established in 1920. In January 1921, Australia’s greatest citizen soldier, Sir John Monash, was appointed as SEC chairman. Drawing upon the huge deposits of brown coal in the Latrobe Valley, the SEC established a system of power distribution and sale; by 1929 its grid covered almost all of Victoria.

In inter-war Melbourne, a battle for ‘market share’ raged between the gas and electricity companies to attract customers. Both the SEC and the Metropolitan Gas Company had their headquarters in Flinders Street, and both had showrooms throughout the suburbs and major regional centres. Both gas and electricity were used in the domestic market, so it became a matter of which source was used to power the most applications.

A tactic employed by the gas companies was to align their products to successful property developers, such as AV Jennings. Houses in Jennings estates in Melbourne suburbs of Murrumbeena, Ivanhoe and East Ivanhoe were fitted out with gas-powered devices, particularly in the kitchen. But the number of uses for gas was limited, whilst electricity was portable and could be used for a multitude of purposes. The inter-war era resulted in the introduction of numerous electrical appliances into the domestic market, such as vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, toasters, electric irons, electric washing machines, radios and radiograms. While the gas companies pushed the economy and constant availability of gas, the electricity industry’s advertising slogan, ‘Electricity is matchless’, made much of electricity’s attributes of cleanliness and ease-of-use.

SEC customers were offered the choice of a flat rate (which included separate charges for power and light and offered no incentive to increase consumption) or a two-part tariff, which combined the two and provided a progressively lower overall rate as consumption increased. Despite the fact that tariffs had decreased by 20 per cent in 1934, many SEC customers did not take up the two-part tariff or even enquire about the benefits of converting. The strategy adopted by the electricity authorities was to hold a massive event at the Exhibition Building to demonstrate the benefits of electricity and showcase the ever-increasing range of electrical products.

In September 1935 the interior of the Victorian-era Exhibition Building was transformed into a dazzling moderne space for the Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition, designed to encourage Victorian consumers to adopt electricity for a range of household and commercial services and appliances. The Exhibition was organised by the Centenary Celebration Council, and managed by a committee of representatives from the SEC, City of Melbourne and a range of electric supply authorities. The cost of mounting the exhibition was around £15,000, which was provided by the Electrical Federation of Victoria and the Electric Supply Authorities (about the cost of a major refurbishment of a city building). The exhibition ran for three weeks, open daily (except Sunday) with admission price one shilling and children half price. It was probably deliberately scheduled to coincide with the Royal Melbourne Show in the hope of attracting many visitors from the country.

The event received massive exposure in the Melbourne newspapers and was touted as replacing commonplace exhibitions with ‘the most astonishing spectacle ever seen at an exhibition in Melbourne’.1 On the evening before the opening, the Star trumpeted that ‘the great white lights of Broadway, the Rue de la Paix, and Piccadilly Circus will be put in the shade when All-Electrical Exhibition … opens with a blaze of kaleidoscopic brilliance’.2 According to the Herald, the vast Exhibition Building was ‘transformed into a phantom fairyland – a robot world ruled by electrical switches’. The symbol of the event was George Robot, ‘whose face of shining metal conceals an electrical brain that is almost as susceptible to natural impulses as that of the ordinary human being’.3

Advertising for the All-Electricity Exhibition highlighted shifting directions in home planning, ideas of comfort and convenience, and visions of beauty. To maximise the effect of the electrical exhibits and decorative lighting, no daylight was permitted to enter the Exhibition Building, with all the windows screened. Interior lighting was also concealed, which was to be come a feature of lighting in public halls during this era. In the aisles between the stalls, the light source was a trough suspended from the ceiling that contained luminous tubes and produced an effect described by the Star as ‘shadowy lanes of light’.4

A crowd of 15,000 people turned up for the opening and was addressed by a number of dignitaries, led by the Governor of Victoria, Lord Huntingfield. The State Minister in Charge of Electrical Undertakings, Mr Old, stated that he looked forward to the increased use of electricity and the day when the old cry of ‘a woman’s work is never done’ is replaced by ‘a woman’s work is already done!’5 He then went on to announce a reduction in tariffs to one penny a unit, and was cheered by thousands.

The exhibition employed a new method of organising and displaying goods and products. The Electrical Federation of Victoria wanted to avoid problems from previous tradeshows, where space had been sold to exhibitors and the form of the exhibits was left up to them, resulting in ‘a disharmonious clash of colour and form’.6 As befitting the modernity of its product, the exhibition’s organisers wanted a coordinated design that would not distract the customers from the exhibits. Prominent architect Edward Fielder Billson was given the power to enforce an overall integrated plan of exhibits.


Figure 1. Advertisement for opening day of the Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition, Star, 14 September 1935.
(Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)


Figure 2. The Exhibition Building transformed to the moderne for the Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition.
Photograph by Lyle Fowler. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

In 1915, Ed Billson became the first person to receive a Diploma in Architecture from Melbourne University. He went on to become a leading modernist architect. In 1916, he became the first Australian employee of Walter Burley Griffin, working with Griffin until 1922. Billson was well connected socially, and received many commissions for houses in middle-class suburbs such as Toorak, Malvern and Caulfield. He also worked with Roy Lippincott, Griffin’s brother-in-law, on the design of Auckland University in New Zealand (1921–26). Influenced by his time working with Griffin, Billson’s designs changed around the mid 1930s as he embraced the moderne style.7 He brought a new approach to the exhibition, combining the use of moderne styling and integrated exhibits, so as to emphasise the link between electricity and the values of speed and cleanliness. The same overall integrated approach to exhibition design had been a characteristic of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, which featured its own Electrical Building, designed by leading architect Raymond Hood (chief architect for New York’s Rockefeller Centre). The layout and finishes of the exhibits at the Melbourne Exhibition followed the same principles that had been imposed at Chicago.


Figure 3. Postcard of Electricity Pavilion, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933.
(Author’s collection)

Billson oversaw the exhibition’s finishes, layout, signage, lighting and the use of the latest colours. The predominant colour scheme was lettuce green, relieved with black and chromium bands, a grouping of colours that was subsequently used in many moderne buildings. Other combinations at the exhibition were blue and maize, green and primrose, and lavender and primrose. The Argus reported that floodlights were used to reflect from a vertical frieze coloured in alternate vertical stripes of primrose and green. Signage was prescribed to an overall plan for type and illumination. Trade names over the stalls were cut out of materials of varying thickness and were fixed to be free-standing on the edge of a ledge protruding above each stall, from where they were silhouetted by illumination from background lights.8

Visitors could see a combination of exhibits by manufacturers, displays of garden lighting, a Hall of Magic, an all-electric restaurant and a series of displays by government departments. Every conceivable branch of electrical undertaking was represented, with exhibits displaying not-so-subtle messages such as ‘BETTER LIGHT, BETTER SIGHT’. Charts provided advice about costs of conversion to electric appliances and detailed incentives to transfer from old tariff rates and structures to the new rates.

Located in the central section beneath the dome of the Exhibition Building were retailers of electrical products (such as Westinghouse, Hoover, Electrical Co., Hecla, Everhot, Phillips, Healing, Thor, Leonard, Dux hot water systems, and Australian General Electric), lighting companies and electrical engineers. A range of stoves, radios, washing machines, electrical appliances (including kettles, toasters, clocks and vacuum cleaners) and accessories (circuits, fuses) were boldly displayed.


Figure 4. Live electrically: the AGE stand at the Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition.
Photograph by Lyle Fowler. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

The most popular item was the electric refrigerator, exhibited by Kelvinator, Leonard, and Westinghouse. The Kelvinator Company used the event to announce the arrival in Australia of their refrigerators, which sold extremely well. Cooking demonstrations on electric ranges were held daily, and visitors could enter competitions to win a washing machine and electric cooker. The exhibition also featured an all-electric restaurant, where lunches and dinners could be obtained at a low cost and customers could see their food cooked in glass-fronted electric ovens.

A major attraction of the exhibition was the Garden Court of Light, staged by the SEC and Melbourne City Council and described fulsomely by the Argus as ‘A Court of Electrical Magic’.9 The purpose of the Garden Court was to demonstrate the effectiveness of lighting outdoor areas and gardens, flowerbeds and external fountains with rainbow lighting. Visitors went up a flight of stairs (at the western end) and entered beneath a large neon sign proclaiming ‘Electricity – the servant of mankind’. The stairs were guarded by two giant Nubian figures, spears in hand, described in the Argus as ‘plaster symbols of races that live in the near primitive’. As the attendees passed through the doorway, the beam of a photoelectric cell was broken, setting in motion ‘motor-muscles’ that caused the figures to raise their spears in a Zulu salute. Beyond was a space of 200 feet by 60 feet with a series of fountains, illuminated in many colours from a concealed light source and giving the appearance of ‘raining globes of light into pools’ strewn with luminous artificial waterlilies. Above the pool was a small arched bridge with tubes of concealed electric lighting.10


Figure 5. Manufacturers’ and retailers’ stands under the dome of the Exhibition Building, Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition.
Photograph by Lyle Fowler. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

The floor of the Garden Court represented a garden of tall cedars, cypresses, tree ferns, apple trees in blossom, and smaller shrubs standing in striking isolation against the walls. The garden also contained gnomes squatting by toadstools that radiated soft light, green strips of lawn, and figures of hares under the trees. Visitors could lounge in chairs under a luminous sunshade on the balcony above the garden and observe the whole spectacle. Within the garden setting were hundreds of artificial flowers, each containing a small electric bulb in its heart and made of fireproof wax paper.11 The setting shimmered in artificial moonlight, aglow with the soft reds, greens and blues of neon lights, dominated by a huge rainbow arch of light continuously changing its colours. The intention of the display was to demonstrate to Melbourne’s middle-classes that it was possible to ‘secure fairy-like effects in any well-designed suburban garden’. The Herald observed with praise that ‘garden illumination has been given a new significance’.12

A major drawcard of the exhibition was the Hall of Magic, located in the Western Hall. The Herald described it as full of ‘Black Magic … (with) … all the puzzling, baffling, mystifying examples of the behaviour of electricity and light and sight phenomena.’13 The Hall was reached from the Garden Court through a ‘magic door’ which opened and shut automatically. The mechanism was triggered by the breaking of an infrared ray beam between two spots, which activated a photoelectric cell and sent out a feeble electric current, sufficient to trip a switch or relay, which sent a message to the electric motor, causing the door to open. This technology was revolutionary in the mid 1930s.


Figure 6. The Garden of Light, Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition.
Photograph by Lyle Fowler. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

The impact of the Hall of Magic was increased by the use of sky signs, searchlights, concealed lighting and a host of other effects. At the Jumping Ring, the push of a button caused a heavy iron ring to jump up a rod and stay suspended as long as the button was depressed. Tucked away in a corner on a platform was the Electronde, where a conductor sat in front of a small box and aerial. As the conductor waved his hand, the box played music. The device was actually a valve oscillator that emitted notes of a different pitch that the conductor could turn into familiar tunes. A large electromagnetic crane, able to raise half a ton of iron, demonstrated the use of electricity in industry.

But the star resident of the Hall of Magic was George Robot. George featured heavily in the publicity for the exhibition and attracted enormous attention. An advertisement in the Star trumpeted his arrival, describing how the electric-powered robot ‘talks in twelve languages, answers questions, obeys commands, moves and gnashes its teeth in rage; and has been presented to royalty and seen in London, New York, Paris, Berlin’.14 George was imported from England and had cost over £2000 to construct from steel and aluminum. His movements were controlled by sound waves.

Also of interest in the Hall of Magic was the Stroboscope, which generated an optical illusion. Another optical illusion was created by manipulation of light and colour. This began with an image of ‘hunting men’ on a huge canvas, clearly representing Aboriginal people at a campfire. With a flick of a switch, the picture was transformed – the hunters faded away and were replaced by a glowing tower of high tension electricity power line; with another flick, every part of the picture showed the bright outlines of lighted windows, bright street lights, a floodlit tower and a complete modern city. Clearly, the message was that electricity could convert a scene of ‘primeval man’ to a city ablaze with light and electric marvels – the symbols of a modern age that had particular resonance in a settler society.


Figure 7. Electricity triumphs over ‘hunting men’ at the Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition.
Photograph by Lyle Fowler. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

The power of electricity for industrial application was also prominent. Exhibits included the huge power beacon shortly to be installed at the Gabo Island lighthouse in eastern Victoria, and a series of large electric lamps used in film production and at aerodromes. The giant lamps were contrasted with the world’s smallest electrical lamp, which was the size of a grain of wheat, developed and used by medical men in visual examination of internal organs.

State and Federal departments took the opportunity to display the latest equipment, such as the fire alarms, wireless transmitters and receivers demonstrated by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. The Defence Department displayed wireless, telegraphy and telephony sets. An automatic telephone exchange was in full operation, together with demonstrations of rapid transmission of telegrams by the teleprinter, and special talking films featuring the postal, telegraph and telephone services were screened each evening. The Victorian Railways demonstrated a section of a modern air-conditioned railway carriage, probably the prototype for Victoria’s first fully air-conditioned train, the ‘Spirit of Progress’, then under construction. Another major government instrumentality, the Post-Master General’s department, demonstrated how sound is changed into light by a cathode ray oscillograph that enabled visitors to see their own voices. When words were spoken into a microphone, a zigzag flashing line was produced on the screen, which is the voice in the form of a visible electric wave. The Argus noted that it was a primitive demonstration of the essentials of television, which was in use in the US but would not be seen in Melbourne for another 20 years.15

The All-Electric Exhibition of 1935 was certainly one of the most unusual uses for the Exhibition Building and one of the most spectacular events of inter-war Melbourne. Its importance as a trade show was evident in the rise in the consumption of electricity. By 1941, the SEC claimed in an advertisement in the Australian Home Beautiful that it now brought ‘comfort and convenience’ to 350,000 Victorian homes, and was maintaining a network of 7000 miles of high and low tension wires. In postwar Victoria, the SEC became incredibly powerful as a supplier and employer (particularly in the Latrobe Valley), contributing greatly to the boom in manufacturing industries.

The exhibition was also instrumental in presenting the features of moderne styling to a broader public. The major vehicles for such images in the early 1930s had been the silver screen of Hollywood, newspaper articles and magazine advertisements. But at the exhibition, visitors had the opportunity to see examples of the shapes, designs, colours, surfaces and materials that were favoured by modern architects and designers. Furthermore, the All-Electricity Centenary Exhibition signaled a change in the way that similar trade events were organised, structured and laid out. Billson’s architectural approach was adopted for many subsequent exhibitions, with individual exhibits coordinated, signage mandated and integrated styling enforcing a designed conformity to a uniform plan. In this way, design and styling could be used to sell products, but also to publicise broader ideas about technology and modernity within Australia.


1    Herald, 13 September 1935: 20.

2    Star, 13 September 1935: 8.

3    Herald, 13 September 1935: 20–22.

4    Star, 13 September 1935: 8.

5    Argus, 16 September 1935: 12.

6    Argus, 16 September 1935: 12.

7    Major commissions in this period included the factory for the Sanitarium Co. at Warburton in 1936, for which he later won the prestigious Street Medal for Architecture, and Keable House, A’Beckett Street, Melbourne, in 1937.

8    Argus, 16 September 1935: 12.

9    Argus, 16 September 1935: 12. The joint staging represented a maturing of relationships between the two organisations, as they had been involved in a long-standing battle over distribution of electricity. Melbourne City Council was one of a number of councils that maintained its own electricity department (others included Brunswick and Northcote) and the SEC was determined to take over their operations.

10    Argus, 16 September 1935: 12.

11    The threat of fire was ever-present at the Exhibition Building, particularly as exhibitors and patrons continued to smoke, even after no-smoking rules were introduced.

12    Herald, 13 September 1935: 21.

13    Herald, 13 September 1935: 22.

14    Star, 19 September 1935: 9.

15    Argus, 16 September 1935: 12.



Australian Home Beautiful.

Building Magazine.

Age, Melbourne.

Argus, Melbourne.

Herald, Melbourne.

Star, Melbourne.


Dunstan, David. 1996. Victorian Icon: The Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne. Melbourne: Exhibition Trustees.

Goad, Philip; Bingham-Hall, Patrick. 1999. Melbourne Architecture. Balmain, NSW: Watermark Press.

Serle, Geoffrey. 1982. John Monash: A Biography. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Library Council of Victoria 1984. 1934: A Year in the Life of Victoria. Melbourne: Library Council of Victoria.

Cite this chapter as: Grow, Robin. 2008. ‘Power and modernity: A photo essay on the Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition, 1935’. Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World, edited by Darian-Smith, Kate; Gillespie, Richard; Jordan, Caroline; and Willis, Elizabeth. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 18.1–18.12.

© Copyright 2008 Robin Grow
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress:


   by Kate Darian-Smith, Richard Gillespie, Caroline Jordan, Elizabeth Willis