History of Kerosene Oil Lamps

History of Kerosene Oil Lamps

Oil lamps have been a primary source of lighting for centuries. Although they were generally inefficient and difficult to store, these lamps gave light to a formerly dark world. Medical doctor and geologist Abraham Gesner began distilling coal to produce a clear fluid by 1846. He discovered that this clear fluid produced a bright yellow flame when used to power a traditional oil lamp. This yellow flame was much brighter than any flame produced by oil, so he aptly named this new liquid kerosene after the Greek word for “wax oil,” “keroselaion.”

The first modern kerosene lamp was invented by Polish inventor Ignacy Łukasiewicz. In 1856, Łukasiewicz built the world’s first oil refinery and later discovered that kerosene could be extracted from petroleum. This discovery made kerosene much more affordable. After opening his first oil well, Łukasiewicz invented the modern kerosene lamp in 1853. At the same time, American businessman Robert Dietz and his brother patented the first functional flat wick burner that was specially designed for kerosene. Both kinds of kerosene lamps were conveniently portable, with containers for kerosene and wicks or mantles for light sources, protected with glass globes or tubes.

There were three kinds of kerosene lamps: lamps with flat wicks, lamps with tubular wicks, and lamps with mantles. Lamps with flat wicks are traditionally made of cotton, with one side submerged in a kerosene container and a glass chimney for protection. While hot air rises above, cold air is fed to the flame. Central draught kerosene lamps work the same way as flat wick lamps, except that they have tubular wicks. Tubular wick gives more light and requires a bigger glass chimney to create the draught needed for the lamp to burn properly. Mantle lamps feature a net made that is made of fabric with thorium or other rare-earth salts. From above the flame, the mantle heats up to generate brighter light. Dead flame lamps are another variant of the flat wick lamp, except that they are not portable.

After the American Civil War

Kerosene eventually replaced whale oil and revolutionized artificial lighting. In May of 1862, John H. Irwin created the first design for a coil oil lamp to be used with coal oils or other similar hydrocarbons. Coal oil initially emitted a smoky flame until it was refined into kerosene. This refinement allowed lamps to be used indoors. As a result, kerosene led to an economic and cultural revolution. Improved lighting led to improved productivity as factory workers labored on into the night. Improved lighting also meant that public spaces could extend hours of operation, which made oyster houses, theatres, museums, and shops more readily available to consumers.

It wasn’t until January of 1868 that John H. Irwin invented and patented the hot-blast design, which was also known as the “tubular lantern.” Such lamps were designed in a way that hot air was collected from above through a metal chimney and directed through metal tubes to the bottom of the flame to make the flame burn brighter. Thereafter, a cold-blast design was invented. This design differed from the hot-blast design, because cold air was drawn in from around the top of the globe before being fed through metal tubes to the flame. As a result, the lamp was able to produce a brighter light than the hot-blast counterpart, because cold air contains ample oxygen to support the combustion process.

Ushering in the Era of Petroleum

In the 19th century, gas lighting was beyond the economic reach of most American citizens. They relied on lamps that were fueled by fat, camphene, or whale oil. However, oil refineries were abundant by the start of the Civil War, with oil wells producing kerosene in areas such as Pennsylvania and Ontario. Clean-burning kerosene went on to become a sought-after lighting method for lighthouses, locomotives, ships, streets, and so much more. Stoves and heaters were powered by kerosene, and farmers were able to increase their yields due to the prolonged ability to work outside.

Though Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, only half of all homes in the United States had electric power by 1925. Kerosene slowly took the backseat to electricity over the course of several decades. We might often think of kerosene with nostalgia, but it is estimated that in many homes in countries throughout the world still rely on kerosene for cooking, lighting, and heating. Kerosene has transformed into a component of jet fuel and was once used as fuel for rocket engines made by NASA. Even now, some homes depend on kerosene lamps for illumination during power outages or catastrophic events such as floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. If you have any questions about this article or would like to learn more about our replacement parts for kerosene lamps, please contact Antique Lamp Supply to speak with a customer service representative today.