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Oil Lamps in American History

Oil Lamps used in Lighthouses:

Very early oil lamp development can be attributed to the need for more efficient light sources to power light houses. Early light houses were primarily constructed of stone and burned wood, charcoal or tar. These fuels had problems as wood burned very quickly and needed to be tended by the light keeper constantly, and charcoal and tar emitted lots of smoke and fumes.

During the 1600's oil lamps started to become a popular fuel for lighthouses in Europe, although tallow and other wax lamps were still in heavy use. Despite being cheaper, the tallow lamps still reeked and emitted large amounts of smoke. As brick became more popular, more lighthouses were constructed of this new material, and coal became the fuel of choice. Although coal burned slower and required less attention, it did not produce a very bright light. In addition, coal left a film of soot on the inside of the glass panels of the lighthouse. As a result, many lighthouses continued to use wax or tallow candles as their primary light source. Eventually lighthouses started experimenting with refined versions of animal and vegetable oils to improve their light source.

In 1765 a major breakthrough in lighthouse technology was introduced by Antonie Lavoisier which was the parabolic beacon reflector. This reflector focused the beams of light and intensified the result. The original reflectors were fabricated by using a wood form to create a parabolic plaster cast. Small reflectors made of polished tin were then glued to the plaster to create the reflector. The problem remained that oil burning lamps produced acrid fumes and smoke which quickly coated the reflectors and significantly reduced the light source.

In 1781 Aime Argand, a Swiss physicist, produced a cylindrical wick design that increased the supply of air and created a constant smokeless flame which was seven times brighter than a candle. It consisted of two cylinders of brass, an inside cylinder to feed oil to the wick, and an outside cylinder to bring oxygen around the wick. The Argand lamp was further refined by Bertrand Carcel who designed a version that used several wicks and a clockwork pump to deliver oil to the wicks.

In 1784 the catoptric optic, a rotating reflector-lamp system driven by a clockwork weight system, was developed. This mechanism turned the reflectors back and forth creating a unique light source or a change between light and dark, rather than simply producing a constant light. This system was developed due to the need to distinguish the lighthouse beam from others light sources.

The most widely used lamp in light houses until 1812 was the spider lamp, which had a shallow brass pan as a reservoir and four to eight adjustable solid round wicks (without chimneys) that surrounded the pan.

In 1812 the U.S. Government purchased a patented "reflecting and magnifying lantern" from Winslow Lewis, a former ship captain. His catoptric (reflective) optic was constructed of multiple oil-burning lamps, usually burning whale oil, with each lamp having its own parabolic reflector. In later versions of this lamp, round green glass or plano-convex lenses were used in front of the lamps. Many feel that, his "invention" was simply a derivative of the original Argand lamp. This lamp also had many flaws. The reflectors were closer to spherical rather than parabolic, and the silver backing of the reflectors could be easily rubbed off. The individual parts of the lamp were not fastened securely and the brass gears wore out quickly due to poor quality plus their tendency to be fouled by dust and grime. Despite all of these problems, these lamps were placed in all 49 of America's lighthouses, due in large part due to the friendship between Winslow Lewis and Stephen Pleasonton who worked in the Department of State and Patent Office. Pleasonton would later become head of the Lighthouse Service. Interestingly, years later, a nephew of Winslow Lewis helped to bring charges against Stephan Pleasonton for his miss-management of the Service.

In 1822, Augustin Jean Fresnel (pronounced franell) revolutionized the lighting of lighthouses. He introduced the lens that would change the lighthouses forever. This French physicist had created a lens shaped like a bullet. Directly over and under the central glass drum were fitted curved dioptic prisms and then above those were fitted curved catadioptic prisms. The waist of the fixed lens was fitted with a central drum of convex glass around it. The revolving optic also employed a series of convex bull’s-eye lenses. The lens assembly had a delicate balance, was easily rotated and was extremely well manufactured.

The four lens pictures and descriptions below were found at lighthousegateway.com

Note the enormous "bulls-eyes" in the original Cape Canaveral first-order lens, which is on display at Ponce Inlet, Florida. The bulls-eyes bend the light into a round beam to create a flashing effect. Seven types, called "orders," of the lens were developed. The first three largest orders were for seacoast lights, while orders four through six were smaller, for harbor or bay lights. There was also a 3.5 order lens which was used mostly in the Great Lakes.

This is the original first-order fresnel lens from the Gay Head Light. It shows two modifications used to create a flashing effect. First, the lens is formed into round "bull's eyes" which bend the light into a beam rather than a flat sheet. Second, the red panels cause a red flash as the huge lens assembly rotates.
This is the first-order lens at Point Bonita, California. The plain curved surface of the lens indicates a constant light. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.


The principles of physics that applied to this lens were refraction (bending) and reflection. The two different types of prisms bend and reflect the light rays by positioning the prisms around the outside of the lens so that all emerging rays are parallel to each other. The lens was capable of taking the lamps light and focusing it into an intense horizontal beam with up to 90% efficiency. The altering of a beam produced the light house's light characteristic, by which it was classified. Moving screens or (eclipsers) could be placed in front of the beam. Rotating the Fresnel's vertical segments of prisms resulted in funneling the light into vertical or pencil beams. It is an arc of light seen as a ship approaches the lighthouse.

Fresnel developed several sizes of lenses depending upon the power of light needed. These lenses were used though out the world and known as the Fresnel lenses. Today the Fresnel lenses are slowly being replaced by other illuminating sources, such as the high tech plastic beacons used in airports.

A major change in our quality of life in America:

Life in America was very different in 1909 compared to the world we live in today. Over half of The United States population of approximately ninety-two million people lived on farms or in small towns far away from major cities. Country roads were few and most people traveled on trails or ruts created by horse drawn wagons. Much of the population had never seen an automobile, and comforts we now take for granted, like light, heating, running water, bathrooms, washers, telephones, or mail delivery were virtually non-existent. The world was rapidly changing however as this was the beginning of the modern age. Of all the changes that were to affect everyday life, one of the most important was the bright white light provided by the Aladdin Mantle Lamp.

Various Aladdin Lamp Styles

The Aladdin lamp represented the culmination of five decades of innovation beginning with the first oil well drilled in Pennsylvania by Colonel E. L. Drake in 1859. The sudden production of over 1000 gallons of petroleum per day from this well dropped the price of oil from one dollar per gallon to one dollar per barrel, which equaled 42 gallons. Suddenly, lighting oils such as kerosene, coal oil, and paraffin were cheap and plentiful. This turn of events had the direct effect of stimulating research on lighting devices. Many patents, (nearly one hundred) would be granted for improvements to kerosene-burning lamps over the ensuing years.

In the 1890’s the most popular kerosene lamps used round wicks whose flame received it’s air supply through a centrally located draft tube. These lamps were built around the Argand Principle. In 1784 Aime Argand, a Swiss chemist, developed and patented the Argand lamp. This design featured a flat wick formed into a cylinder around a central air tube which boosted the burning efficiency of the lamp. By placing a glass chimney above the wick, an updraft was created which enhanced the brightness of the flame. The wick would draw vegetable oil which flowed from a reservoir or font, mounted above the level of the burner. This type of gravity-feed principle was in use until 1859.

The popular kerosene lamps in the 1890's used round wicks. They were constructed on the Argand principle of supplying air to the flame through a central draft tube. The round wick provided a larger burning surface and gave more light but consumed more oil than the common flat wick lamp. Furthermore, the flame was yellow, it flickered, and the lamp emitted smoke and odor in the home. Nevertheless, these lamps were an improvement in kerosene lighting.

In Europe, Baron Carl Freiherr Auer von Welsbach, an Austrian chemist, made an astonishing discovery with his invention of the incandescent mantle. Welsbach received his first mantle patent September 23, 1885. By 1890 he had developed a mantle-impregnating formula which has remained virtually unchanged ever since. It was known that certain rare earth element oxides incandescence brightly under high heat. Baron von Welsbach was the first to come up with a practical use for this phenomenon and patent it.

His patent covered a cylindrical framework of gauze impregnated with oxides of thorium and cerium. When placed over a gas lamp burner jetted for heat and not light, it produced a much brighter light than a bare gas burner flame. When the gas is ignited, the mantle fabric burns away, leaving a brittle residual lattice of metal oxides. Light is produced when this lattice is heated to glowing by the gas combustion, although the mantle itself does not burn.

American consumers alone used up to 4,000,000 mantles per year once gas lighting became common in US cities. It was unfortunate however; that the Barons invention came along at the same time the electric light bulb was starting to catch on in the major cities. Despite the use of gas and electric in the big cities, the incandescent mantle still had a very important role to play in the un-developed areas of America.

Bright Oil lamps for the rest of the country:

Incandescent mantles had been used on round wick kerosene lamps for several years before a company called the “Mantle Lamp Company of America” was founded. Although there was a pretty good understanding of the general shape, size and mesh that was required for a mantle to glow properly under a kerosene round wick, the placement and suspension of the mantle over the flame in order to get an even glow was still a huge problem.

Burner
Mantle
Cimney

Victor Samuel Johnson, a Nebraskan, started out as a salesman for the Iowa Soap Company which was based in Burlington Iowa. He formed the Western Lighting Company at the age of 25 to market a kerosene burner from Germany that produced a very pure white light. He discovered the burner while traveling as a salesman. His dream was to market a complete lamp and realized that dream when he found a US manufacturer to produce his improved kerosene mantle lamp burner. The lamp he produced was marketed under the Aladdin trademark, In 1908, one year later, Johnson formed The Mantle Lamp Company of America and based the company in Chicago. In the early stages of the company Johnson marketed lamps with the improved German burner under both the name Practicus and Aladdin.

In the early 20th century, America was starting the long transformation to the widespread use of electricity. Johnson’s new lamps with their improvements provided bright white light to towns, farms, and homes that remained beyond the reach of electrical service. Aladdin lamps were used everywhere you could imagine, city lamps, trains, lighthouses, homes, businesses etc. Around the time of World War II, the Mantle Lamp Company Of America was granted special permission to use copper in the manufacture of their lamps since their widespread use dramatically reduced the need for copper wiring. Copper was one of the key metals our government needed during the war effort.

Johnson’s engineering staff continued to improve the Aladdin lamp and the company was able to market these lamps around the world. In a brilliant marketing move, he targeted American customers by promoting that his oil lamps were easily converted to electric power by using one of Aladdin’s converters. Although considered expensive at the time, the Aladdin lamp was of very high quality, very dependable and available in all of the popular artistic designs of the time. Although the Aladdin lamps popularity has dropped over the years as electricity has become commonplace, the company exists to this day and is still manufacturing very high quality lamps. One can only imagine how much impact the Aladdin lamp had on early Americans and their quality of life. Aladdin lamps can be found on their website at http://www.aladdinlamps.com

The Next Generation of oil lamp

Karen Boss started Firelight Glass in the early 1970s as a one-person glassblowing company "headquartered" at a kitchen table in the corner of a friend's garage. From these humble beginnings, she and her husband, President Jamie Maslach, built their thriving business through both a passion for glass design and a set of incredibly high operational standards that still form the very root of the company. Today Karen remains the industry's premier designer, bringing an uncompromised sense of pure design to each and every Firelight Glass product.

Instead of kerosene, Firelight lamps use pure liquid paraffin lamp oil and a wick produced of fiberglass strands in a glass tube. The result is a flame that is clean and virtually odorless with a wick that can last a lifetime. Depending on the particular design, Firelight oil candles and lamps can burn for days without refilling. This makes them very easy to use and maintain. Effective for many types of situations, Firelight oil candles are used in the home to add a touch of light where it’s needed, as centerpieces for dining tables, for outdoor events or backyard parties and they are also very useful when the power goes out.

Firelight oil candles and lamps are unique in that they are seamless one piece designs that are hand blown by skilled hot workers. Oil candles and lamps in all sorts of geometric sizes and shapes are created in pure water while crystal. The end result is a candle or lamp that uses clean safe fuel that can last a lifetime and that defines simple beauty in crystal clear glass shapes.

Various Firelight Glass Oil Lamps

Firelight Glass President, James Maslach has over the years developed innovative tooling to make impossible shapes in glass not only possible, but truly showcases of manufacturability.

Collectors of Firelight Glass abound and many are still collecting new designs. Firelight Glass candles and lamps can be found at fine retailers throughout the world or on their website at http://www.firelight.com

Sources Used in this article:

Internet:

  1. Anatomy Of a Lighthouse
  2. Admiralty Head Lighthouse
  3. Nightbeacon.com
  4. United States Lighthouse Society
  5. Shenandoah Antique Restoration
  6. Firelight Glass

Print:

  1. Antique LampBuyers Guide - by Nadja Maril - Shiffer Publishing
  2. Lanterns That Lit Our World - by Anthony Hobson - Golden Hill Press

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