Friday, 25 December 2015 04:24

Remembering When Our World Was Lit by Oil

Written by Lorne VanSinclair for the Orillia Packet & Times

While we are right in the middle of the biggest holiday season of the year we have many things to be thankful for. Among them, the price of gas continues to fall and the darkest day of the year has passed. Winter will still be cold, but not quite so dark and depressing from now on.

We in the modern world can alleviate the darkness with lots of bright lights, and we certainly do, but the darkness must have been much more profound in the days before we had cheap, reliable and safe indoor lighting. Amazingly, that was just over a hundred years ago. Lamp technology was very slow to evolve but then things changed so fast many new lamps were obsolete almost as soon as they were introduced. Interestingly, it was a Canadian invention and a very dramatic drop in the price of oil that were the prime catalysts for the home lighting industry.

Ever since humans learned to control fire we have been using it to heat and light our environment. We started using animal or vegetable fat for fuel around 5000 B.C.  Lamps, first made of clay then metal remained basically unchanged for several millennia. All had a reservoir for liquid fat and some way of holding a wick in place. Right up until Victorian times many rural homes were lit with what was called a slut-lamp. It was just a rag soaked in lard stuck in the neck of a bottle which, when set afire, gave off a lot of smoke and not much light.

127 betty lamp contentBetty, or betsy lamps were very popular in North American homes in the 1700s; variations were still being manufactured right up to about 1850. They had a hinged lid and a thin metal channel that fed the wick to the bottom of the reservoir, but they were still just open-flame lamps and not really much of an improvement over lamps from Biblical times.

This lack of improvement was odd, especially since Leonardo da Vinci had discovered as early as 1500 that putting a chimney around the flame made it burn brighter with less smoke. It took over 200 years for that discovery to be applied to household lamps and even longer before glass chimneys became common.

We would like to think someone saw a great need for better home lighting and came up with a useful invention but actually it was industry and commerce that drove lighting innovation. By 1800 the Industrial Revolution was getting underway, factories were springing up everywhere but without artificial light, they had to shut down at night. The cities growing around the factories also had a need for public street lighting. This was especially a problem in Britain where the winter nights are much longer than ours.

A system that would fuel hundreds, or thousands, of lights at the same time was needed. Natural gas was available, the Chinese had been using it for centuries using a crude network of bamboo, but natural gas deposits were too far away from primary markets. A method for capturing and sending it over long distances had not yet been developed.

To solve the problem a series of British and European inventors came up with a method of extracting gas from coal; gas works could then be built in urban centres. By 1816 gas works were piping fuel to factories and street lights in London and a few other cities. Gas lighting was so successful the concept soon spread all over the industrialized world. However home gas lighting was only available to wealthy people in large cities, those in rural areas, which was 90% of the population in North America, still relied on their betty lamps.

Shipping provided the other great need for efficient lighting. Ships relied on lighthouses for navigation in coastal waters but the early ones, essentially a bonfire in a tower, were inefficient, smoky, stinky and required constant attention.  They really needed a better way. The first major innovation came in 1765 when Antoinie Lavoisier invented the parabolic reflector. Now light could be focused in one direction. Then in 1781 Swiss physicist Aime Argand came up with a cylindrical wick design that increased the flow of air and produced a smokeless flame that was seven times brighter than a candle. The Argand principle was used for over a hundred years in both industrial and household lamps.

The shipping industry also provided a new fuel, whale oil. Whale oil burned cleaner than other animal fats and soon whale oil lamps became the most popular for household use. This is when glass companies got involved; the lamp burners were made of tin or pewter and the newly-evolving glass companies provided the hand-blown reservoirs and chimneys. Lamps started to become part of household decor. They were better but still, it was animal fat, and the term slut-lamp still applied. Whale oil was also a very limited resource that was getting more expensive as the whale population was being decimated.
The big change came in the mid-1800s. In 1849 Canadian scientist Abraham Gesner perfected an inexpensive process for extracting kerosene (also known as coal oil or paraffin) from petroleum. At the time crude oil was selling for $42 a barrel because it was difficult to dig it up. In 1859 Colonel E.L. Drake, working to find oil in Pennsylvania, came up with the idea of drilling for oil the same way you drill for water. Oil is deeper than water and a normal drill hole would collapse so he drove a hollow pipe into the ground first, and then drilled through that. People thought he was crazy but his rig struck oil at 70 feet and started the first oil boom. Almost overnight the price of oil plummeted to $1 a barrel, kerosene lamps became economically viable, the home lighting industry was born and a lot of whales were spared.

127 lamp content2Household lighting manufacturers sprung up like mushrooms. Hundreds of new burner patents were issued, often based on the Argand principle, glass companies provided highly decorative accessories. This was the golden era of oil lamps.

One of the most innovative burners was introduced to North America by the Aladdin Lamp Company. Their burner, invented by an Austrian chemist in 1865, was set to give a very hot flame, more of a torch than a light. Above it was a mantle, fine gauze impregnated with oxides of thorium and cerium. The mantle itself did not burn but glowed with a clear, clean, steady light; it was a significant improvement over the standard kerosene lamps, so good that it is still being made today.

Most collectors concentrate on lamps from this period; there were many high-end, beautiful lamps that employed glass from the best manufacturers, it was a great period but it didn’t last long.

Even when whale oil lamps were popular, manufacturers knew kerosene was just around the corner so the lamps were made to be easily converted. When kerosene became the norm, electric lights were already in development. During the early 1900s and many people converted their expensive oil lamps to electric. That’s why it is difficult to find period lamps with their original burners; retrofitting was common practice.

There is a very active lamp collecting community, it has been around for decades and has watched technology take a further toll.  When the Internet, specifically eBay, came along rare pieces rose in price because it was now an international market, common pieces became more plentiful and dropped in price, dramatically.

That can be good news too; it is now easy to start a modest collection. Oil lamps can be both beautiful and functional. We are in an era of extreme weather which most scientists believe is caused by burning too much oil. Paradoxically, it is now prudent to have at least one good, working oil lamp ready to light your home with a warm glow when the power goes out.