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Radiant array: Anchorage man collects colorful pieces of history in glass

The glass glows in lit cases lining the walls of Bernard Warren's Hillside home. At first glance, the neat, colorful lines of peculiar shapes seem to be some kind of grand art installation. But, in fact, the items are an extensive exhibit of artifacts that tell the history of electric communication in luminous blues, greens, yellows and purples.

Bernie Warren started collecting old glass electrical insulators, also known as pin insulators, in the 1960s. He and his wife, Madeline, moved to Anchorage to become teachers in 1961. He was teaching government at West High when the 1964 Good Friday earthquake knocked the top floor off most of the building.

The big quake was also responsible for his hobby. It brought down the poles that held the wires that followed the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward. The wires were critical to railroad operations, sending messages and equipment signals back and forth along the line. It was similar to the system used wherever railroads ran. Thousands of miles of wooden poles were connected by wires carrying electricity. To keep the wood from interfering with the electric charge, the wires were attached to non-conductive glass pieces.

But by 1964, there were alternatives. "After the quake, the railroad abandoned most of the line to Seward and put in microwaves instead," Warren said. Some of the wire was removed. The poles were largely left where they fell. The glass insulators sat in the grass or rolled slowly downhill.

"I used to go fishing in Portage," Warren said; trout fishing is his other obsession. "The insulators were everywhere. I got curious about them."

Curiosity eventually led to more than 40 trips abroad, chasing down unusual insulators in Australia, France, Morocco, South America, attending conferences and collectors' shows -- "I only know two other guys who have been to more national shows than I have," he said -- and serving on the board of the National Insulator Association.

Much of his searching happened after he retired from the Anchorage School District 30 years ago. It was a propitious time for such a quest. Around the world, the old telegraph lines were coming down, replaced by more modern systems: microwave, radio, satellite.

"I never had to climb a pole," Warren said. "I'd go to the power company or the telephone company and they'd have stacks out back. 'Sure,' they'd say. 'Here's some. Want more? Go help yourself.'"

Warren has organized his collection by country and style. The American "beehive" shape is the most common. But other designs will be unfamiliar to those who grew up staring at the glassy knobs that topped the poles that followed the roads. They have shapes that suggest people, animals, samurai helmets and Buck Rogers' sci-fi space gear.

"France made the wildest insulators in the world," he said pointing to rows of oddities with names devised to suggest their looks: "gingerbread men" (and "gingerbread boys" and "mamas"), "robots," "frogs," "spooks," "bustles," two-arm "T-bars" and one-arm "nosers."

Even among the North American insulators, one can spot experiments that didn't work as planned and were eventually abandoned, like "castles" and beaded drip-lines.

The insulators are known to collectors by numbers assigned using something called the consolidated design system. Warren can tell a CD 134 from a CD 143 at a glance. He also knows the names of all the major manufacturers and most of the minor ones: Hemingray, Brookfield, Derflinder, Knowles, Dominion, McLaughlin, Felembray.

The common purpose of all these designs was to keep the wire from making contact with the post. The insulator had to shed water effectively or the line would short out. The wire carrying the power had to go straight, so it was attached to the insulator with a separate piece of tie wire.

The oldest examples on display included a threadless model from 1865 (insulators were universally screwed onto the pins after 1875) and some blackened specimens from a Civil War dig in Richmond, Virginia.

Historic? Yes. Valuable? Well, not really. Warren laughed as he spoke of people buying common models at antique stores for $5 or $10. "I couldn't sell 10 of them for one dollar at a convention," he said.

That's because millions were made and glass doesn't decay very quickly -- if at all. (It can change color depending on chemicals added during the glass-making process.) Early telephone poles had as many at 80 on each pole.

"My collection is piddling compared to the big collectors," Warren said. But his hand-built display cases that could probably hold more than a thousand normal-size insulators are one of a kind. "Except in Australia, I've never seen anyone who had them backlit like this. But I want to see the colors. Most of these are pretty common; it's just the shapes and the colors that get the attention of collectors."

Some of the bigger models don't fit inside the cabinets. And some of the items are not original pin insulators but modern replicas. There are ceramic eggs and strains used to insulate guy wires connecting the top of the pole to the ground, ashtrays made by insulator manufacturers for advertising purposes, a "stacker" suspension insulator known as "Cochran bells" and old bottles.

Warren's collection may not be the biggest anywhere but, he said with some authority, it is surely the biggest in Alaska.

But not for much longer. A fellow collector has purchased the bunch. He'll soon clear out the cabinets and take the contents far, far away.

"It's been a lot of fun, but it was time to get rid of them," said Warren, who turned 83 in December.

He said he'll retain a few made in Madeline's hometown. Nothing special -- mostly of nostalgic value. And he plans to keep checking in on the National Insulator Association, which has given both him and Madeline lifetime achievement awards, attending occasional conferences and sales.

"I'm just selling the collection," he said. "I'm not quitting the hobby. Not till I die."