Pressure Lamps International
A Brief History of the Incandescent Mantle Pressure Lamp
The history of the pressure lamp is a fascinating story of the will to experiment through trial, error, and intuitive design in a struggle to win over the darkness of night to the convenience of light. When our hominid ancestors began to walk upright some three and a half million years ago, their evolutionary advantage over other species was limited to the daylight hours, and without the benefit of keen night vision, they must have been just as much at risk in the dark of night, when prey became predator. Once fire was mastered, the night began to lose its terrors, and when today we share with friends the comfort of a campfire on some remote outback vacation, or even on the resort beach or in the backyard, it isn't hard to visualise a similar scene all those thousands of years ago.
For centuries, the light of an open flame was the best we could do, and it wasn't until the eighteenth century industrial revolution in Europe and its imperative need for better lighting in order to extend the length of the working day that engineers and scientists began to seriously look at the technology of light . Many styles of oil lamps were in use, and it was known that small adjustments to the shape and length of a glass tube placed around the flame could alter the degree and quality of light emitted. Another was of producing a superior flame was to force oil to the burner, rather than to rely on capilliary action. One of the earliest pressure lamps preceded the mantle by almost a century, and there is a vague similarity in the fount section for George Alcock's specification of 1806, patent number 2903, to some 20th Century lamps. Alcock's improvement is shown in the patent drawing fueling an Argand Lamp, supplying fuel oil under pressure produced by "air condensed into the upper part of its cavity by means of the syringe." The syringe, or pump, is entirely similar to the pumps on modern pressure lamps.
Ami Argand, born in Switzerland in 1755 but later to live in London, took out a patent for a circular-wick lamp in 1784. In this type of lamp, air is passed up the inside of the annular flame as well as around the outside, so giving a more complete oxidation of the burning oil. As lamps became more efficient, so it was apparent that the fuel oil available was not really of adequate quality. From the early nineteenth century, scientists and innovators had been experimenting with shapes of burners, fuels, wick materials and every other parameter of the flame. It was soon realised that coal gas was the best and cleanest fuel, but because of it's nature, gas was more suited to use in large towns, or in wealthy homes, and on fixed equipment. Some sources state that the very first portable lamp to use a mechanism to develop pressure to force fuel oil into the burner was invented by Houghton in 1836. There is other evidence that the UK patent was granted to "some foreigner abroad", who was Franchot from Paris. (UK Patent 7265, 1836) The lamp had a circular wick, and used a piston driven by a spring to force fuel upwards. This was the "Moderator lamp". A forerunner of the Moderator was the clockwork driven lamp of B.G. Carcel, invented in 1798. This also had a circular wick, and was portable.
In a completely different discipline, in 1828 the Swedish chemist Johan Berzelius was able to separate the oxide of thorium from one of the element's salts, although he had no idea of the ultimate widespread use to which his discovery would be put. Several years later, In 1835, William Fox Talbot recorded another crucial discovery, when he found that blotting paper impregnated with calcium chloride left a white ash with a peculiar bright after-glow when burnt. The first real mantle was still fifty years away, and many steps were still to be made before either of these discoveries was applied successfully. Not least, there was a need for a clean and economical fuel oil.
In the search for better fuels, it was discovered that the sticky oils associated with coal seams could be altered, and separated into different fractions, some of which made excellent lamp fuel. Paraffin (kerosene) was discovered in 1830 by Reichenback and Christison, working independently of one another. The first plant to produce paraffin fuel oil for lamps was started in 1848 in Derbyshire, England, and the process was patented by Dr James Young two years later. By 1858 Bissell and Drake were searching for oil in North America, and in August 1859, Drake's 69 feet deep well filled up with oil, starting a rush to buy land in the Oil Creek area. Young's oil came from shale, whereas Drake's was naturally occurring oil.
Although Lewes had previously made a platinum iridium mantle, it's high cost and variable reliability meant that it was not a commercial success, and Clamond was probably the first man to design a working mantle, in 1881. He failed, though, to overcome the technical and chemical problems associated with high temperature, and he still could not achieve clean combustion. However, Clamond demonstrated his mantle at London's Crystal Palace exhibition in 1883, and gained a good response. Robert Bunsen was among the first to fully understand the process of efficient combustion, and in order to get the most energy out of the fuel, he had already created a variable air limiter so that a burner could be properly adjusted to burn a variety of gaseous fuels. He won lasting fame for the simple laboratory device, the Bunsen Burner, which has been made in countless numbers since its invention. One of Bunsen's students, Carl Auer von Welsbach, was aware that certain chemical substances would emit an incandescent light when heated, and he understood that the light given by an open flame wick lamp could be greatly enhanced by allowing it to play upon a specially prepared silk mantle. His invention of the first durable working mantle in 1885 was to revolutionise the industrial and domestic lighting scene. By 1893 the mantle was established as a viable device in its own right. Like many pioneers, von Welsbach was a little ahead of his time, and it was several years before the first successful commercial mantle was available in any quantity. Without efficient combustion, the carbon particles which lessened the effectiveness of open flame lamps would soon clog up and spoil the mantle. Von Welsbach's estimate of Thoria and Ceria in a 99 to 1 ratio was remarkably accurate, and those proportions remained standard for many years for all kinds of mantles. The two main uses for Thoria are in stark contrast to each other, they are lamp mantles and nuclear breeder reactors!
All important as the mantle was, it would not perform without an efficient fuel, Europe and North America were both fertile grounds for new ideas and techniques. Among those working on lighting in America were Isaiah Jennings and John Summerfield Hull. Between them, they have extensive patents on file for distilled lamp fluids and volatile fluid lamp improvements, and one of their lamps is still on display in the Henry Ford museum. It is not often we hear from decendants of the lighting pioneers, but Michael Hull has supplied information about his great grandfather that is given in Appendix 1.
Quality fuel, efficient combustion, and the mantle at last came together to produce the worlds brightest portable oil lamp. In 1895, Mueller or (Moeller) took out a patent on the ERA lamp, forerunner of the Famos, Veritas, and Aladdin family of lamps. All that remained was to add pressure to the system to further improve efficiency of combustion.
In the same year, 1895, a pressurised mantle lamp was designed, using a rubber bulb to provide air to a pressurised container containing Benzoline, which then burned below an upright mantle. This lamp is described by Ramsey (1968) but no details of it's inventor are given. However, it is known that Meyenberg took out a patent in the same year for a pressure lamp using a mantle. Others were experimenting with mantles burning a fuel and air mixture under pressure, but Meyenberg is probably the name we should associate with the first true pressure lamp incorporating a mantle. UK Patent 23836 dated 12th December 1895, granted for Meyenberg, Wendorf and Henlein, on the subject of vapourlamps, describes a casing containing a ball with compressd air, and a lamp with two chambers, one containing paraffin, the other benzoline. A non-return valve was fitted for inflating the ball within the casing. It seems likely that Meyenberg was working from Germany.
The Swedish company, Aktiebolaget Aladin produced a pressurised mantle lamp in 1907, which used a preheating device to start up the lamp, then relied upon the heat of the mantle to evaporate fuel oil in the riser tube. This principle has been with us ever since, and in Europe, even today, Swedish names such as Primus and Optimus are synonymous with good quality pressure lamps and stoves. In Berlin, Max Graetz was working on a design of kerosene lantern which was to be marketed very successfully in Europe by his company, Ehrich and Graetz, under the Petromax trade name.
All this was happening in Europe, but at the same time, other pioneers were developing their own ideas in North America. Arthur Kitson designed and built a pressure driven vapour burning lamp in the mid 1890s, but did not take out his US patent until 1898. The Kitson lamp, probably the best known from that period in Europe and the USA also incorporated features which can be traced onwards to the modern kerosene and petrol lamps in use today. Amongst the other lighting pioneers who patented their ideas were A.J. English (1899) V.H. Slinack (1899) F.M. Blackman (1899) and W.H. Irby (1900), whose lamp remained in production for about 20 years, made by the company Irby and Gilliland in Tennessee.
Right on the turn of the century, 30 year old William Coleman was selling typewriters in Alabama, when he came across the Irby and Gilliland's "Efficient Lamp". Coleman was completely fascinated by this product, and gave up the typwriter business in favour of selling the lamp. He went on to form his own company, the Hydro-Carbon Light Company, later to become the Coleman Lamp Company. Design and development proceeded, from Quick-Lite to Instant-Lite lamps and lanterns burning petroleum, then to paraffin or kerosene versions. Glass and fabric were used for fancy shades, and mica for the hardworking outdoor lanterns. A year or two ahead of William Coleman, Hans Hanson was making light generating appliances in Minnesota as early as 1896. Within ten years Hanson's American Gas Light Co. was producing high quality lamps for home and farm use.
While North American development concentrated on petroleum as a fuel, Europe was moving away from the more volatile oils to kerosene, or paraffin, probably a reflection on the far greater population density, and its greater consequential risk in the event of fire. Liquid paraffin is not flammable, and a lighted match dropped into a bowl of paraffin will be extinguished. Serious accidents with paraffin were rare, so it became the preferred fuel. By the 1920s the standard design for a table lamp was a bowl shaped fount, pressurised by air from either a built-in or a separate pump. a fuel riser, valve, generator to vaporise the fuel, and a burner above one or two inverted mantles. All the major manufacturers produced something along these lines, Tilley, Coleman, AGM, Evening Star, Petromax, and Primus among them, and there really is not much to choose between any of their models.
One obvious application where bright light was need was in lighthouses, and in the 1920s pressurised oil burning mantle lamps were in use in lighthouses everywhere.
Improvements in technology meant that by now every manufacturer had incorporated a fine needle inside the vaporiser to clean the injector tip, and either a spirit holder or "roarer" to start paraffin lamps, and either a small spirit cup or an "instant light facility" to start petroleum lamps. The circular spiral vaporiser surrounding an inverted mantle was designed in 1931 by W.B. Engh, and became the standard design for manufacturers such as Primus, Optimus and Petromax, and later by Coleman. Initially, Coleman's method of achieving good evaporation of fuel oil was to use twin mantles either side of a vertical generator, virtually doubling the heat input into the oil and eliminating the shadow of the generator. Tilley's method of getting good heat transfer was to use a generator passing right through the mantle, this also gave shadow free light. This method has now been in use for over 70 years, and is still unchanged in the modern Vapalux lantern and Tilley stormlight. Interestingly, the largest and most prolific supplier of wick lamps in the UK was Falk Stadelmann & Co, a company which entered the Pressure lamp market using the established Veritas brand name, but which never really managed to compete successfully with the pressure specialists such as Tilley and Coleman. These last two companies, from humble beginnings at the turn of the century, have made countless thousands of lamps and lanterns which have been used all over the world. They still make lanterns, and will probably continue to do so well into the next millennium.
Is it any wonder that collectors all over the world love the sound and smell of the pressure lamp? There is a wealth of history in the yellow glow, and the vision and foresight of the early lighting pioneers lives on in the light given out by the descendants of their first inventions.
Anon (1980) A Brief History of the Origin and use of Coleman Lamps and Lanterns. The Coleman Company Inc. Wichita USA
Claypole J. (1996) The Incandescent Mantle: Hesitant and Complex Beginnings The Midnight Oil Issue 23, Spring 1996
Courter J.W. (1997) Aladdin, The magic Name in Lamps J. W. Courter, Kevil, Kentucky USA
Derry and Williams (1960) A short history of technology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
Ebendorf H. (1982) Gas from Gasoline. The Coleman Company Inc. Wichita USA
Hobson A. (1997) Lanterns That Lit Our World: Book 2 Golden Hill Press. New York
Hull, Michael (2000) Personal communication
Meadows C.A. (1995) Discovering Oil Lamps Shire Publications Ltd. Princes Risborough, UK
Ramsey A.R.J. (1968) The Origin and Development of the Incandescent Pressure Lamp. The Newcomen Society Transactions 1968-69 XLI
The Coleman Company (1983) A Brief History of the American Gas Machine Co. The Coleman Lite, No 6 August 1983
Tucker C.R and Ebendorf H. (1996) Coleman Collectors Guide. Coleman Museum, Wichita,USA
Valor International (1976) Oil Lamps and Fittings. Reprint of Catalogue No 685, September 1933 Quest Publications, Oxford, UK
I am also grateful for information provided by personal communication from Herb Ebendorf, Coleman Historian in Wichita, USA, Anton Kaim in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Ara Kebapcioglu in Paris.
Essential Books for Collectors:
Tony Hobson's "Lanterns That Lit Our World" - book two. Golden Hill Press, Spencertown, New York 12165. Published in 1997, this book contains a section on the most productive Pressue Lamp manufacturers in North America, including Coleman, AGM, Akron, Best, Acorn and others.
Tony Hobson: Lanterns that lit our world 2
Carl Tucker and Herb Ebendorf - "Coleman Collectors Guide 1903-1954" This book, published in 1996, describes the development of the Coleman Company, and lists virtually all of the lamps and lanterns manufactured up to 1954.
Carl Tucker and Herb Ebendorf - Coleman Collector's Guide
Jim Dick's "A History of Tilley Lamps." This very comprehensive guide chronicles the ever widening range of lamps and lanterns made by the Tilley Lamp Company. This is a brand new Australian publication which is being overseen in the UK by Tilley, so visit their web site at http://www.tilleylamp.co.uk
Over a hundred pages of text, photographs and illustrations detailing lamps and lanterns designed and manufactured between 1920 and 2000.
Jim Dick - A History of Tilley Lamps