Aug. 28 2020 06:00 AM

Meet the inventor of the 12v lighting system.

Sergey Nivens / Adobe Stock

The history of outdoor lighting is filled with interesting inventors and entrepreneurs. We learned last month about Frank Nightingale, the developer of garden lighting. The origin of the 12v lighting system is just as interesting.

The inventor of the 12v lighting system

William Jennings Locklin was born in Alhambra, California, in June 1921. Locklin was abandoned at a train station at the age of 3 months old. During his youth he made money by hunting coyotes for local ranchers. When the U.S. entered World War II, he joined the U.S. Navy. As you can imagine, Locklin had learned at an early age that perseverance is key, and the Navy was no different. He served as an electrician’s mate on the USS Trepang attack submarine in the Pacific Ocean theater.

He was known for his wiring expertise and ability to troubleshoot electrical issues. During his service, he was awarded a Bronze Star.

After the war, Locklin returned to California, opened Locklin Electric in Colton and began serving the local area. Locklin learned about garden lighting from Nancy Nightingale Eppard and Bill Eppard, the daughter and son-in-law of Frank Nightingale. Since Locklin was a licensed electrical contractor, it was very easy for him to begin installing 120v garden lighting. He began working on theater and stage lighting at the Redlands Bowl in Redland, California, where he learned many color-mixing techniques.

He excelled in landscape lighting and became one of Nightingale’s biggest customers.

Locklin was once called to a property to look at a potential lighting job, as the owner of the property was hosting an event for a special guest. After making a list of materials, he visited his local distributor, but found that the needed material would not be available within the job’s time frame. Driving back to his shop he noticed the headlights of an oncoming vehicle passing him in the opposite lane. This gave him an idea.

The next day Locklin gathered juice cans, funnels and mayonnaise jars. He painted them and installed 12v automotive sockets and lamps. Transformers wound by hand and marine batteries would power the system. The job was installed, and the customer and his special guest, President Dwight Eisenhower, were very impressed. Eisenhower then invited Locklin to his cottage to do the lighting there.

Thus, the 12v lighting system was born. Locklin tried to encourage his fellow electricians to embrace 12v lighting but most dismissed the idea at that time. He began visiting garden centers in the evenings and with the help of an old suitcase built up with a roller shade, plastic plants and a few fixtures, he demonstrated shadowing and other lighting techniques.

Eventually, landscape contractors became more interested in the 12v system. In most states their contractor license would allow them to work with electricity up to 30v, thus allowing a 12v lighting system installation without being a licensed electrician.

Locklin began manufacturing fixtures and transformers at his facility in Redlands, California. He was known for coining the phrase, “The effect of the light is seen, not the source.”

He created a dark room that was completely landscaped. Here he could demonstrate different lamp combinations and effects with light. I can remember as a young guy attending his seminar, where I was bitten by the “lighting bug.” Locklin’s relationship with contractors was unprecedented; he always took the time to talk one-on-one with his contractor customers, creating customers for life. If interested, check out his book titled, A Hobby Out of Control: Ten Life-Based Lessons for Young Entrepreneurs.

And trust me, there were many more “pioneers” that came after Nightingale and Locklin. All have made considerable contributions to the landscape lighting industry. There are so many more contractors and manufacturers who have been very creative, some using existing product and others creating their own. It is these creative and innovative minds that keep our industry alive and exciting!

Kevin Smith is the national technical support and trainer at Brilliance LED LLC, Carefree, Arizona, and can be reached at