20th Century Lanterns



This will eventually be the last 100 years of pressure lanterns! (with some considerable luck!)

The first mantle lamps

In 1895, (the same year that Mueller took out his patent on the ERA lamp) 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 vapour lamps, describes a casing containing a ball with compressed 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 Aladdin 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 typewriter 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 in addition either a spirit holder or the alternative "roarer" burner 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 delayed entry to 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.


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.


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 01

Appendix 1 (author: Michael Hull)

This is the obituary of my Great Grandfather:



Death of Mr. John Summerfield Hull, a Man With a remarkable History

Mr. John Summerfield Hull, a man with a remarkable history, died yesterday morning at his late home, 802 George street. He was the inventor of more than a hundred useful devices for the canning trade, and many of them are now in daily use in packing houses in various sections of the country. Mr. Hull came of an old Quaker family of Connecticut. He was born in Norwich, Conn., August 1, 1823. His family was famous in Revolutionary times, and has furnished the country with many who have done valuable work in many walks of life. His uncle, Isaac Hull, achieved fame as a commodore in the United States navy: a cousin, Isaiah Jennings, was the first to invent (among many other things) the common lucifer match: and there were many doctors and preachers of that name famous in their day throughout the state. Mr. Hull naturally took to mechanical studies from his youth. He served in the shop of his famous cousin, the inventor Jennings, his years of apprenticeship, and afterwards was a master mechanic for a few years, when a desire to branch out for himself led him to go West. He went to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1849, where he remained until 1875, when he came to Baltimore. During his long stay in the West Mr. Hull perfected the first lamps in which coal oil could be used safely: also lamps in which gasoline could be used with absolute safety, and the common painters' torch as used at present: the fakir's lamp, and many other inventions and devices connected with lamps and chandeliers. In the invention of apparatus and various lamps and torches in which the most volatile forms of the hydrocarbons can be used safely, Mr. Hull was the first inventor, and many of his early ideas that are still in common use all over the country have never been improved upon. At the time of his death he was the head of the Hull Manufacturing Company, making, principally, packing-house apparatus. Mr. Hull was married twice. His first wife, who was a Miss Susannah Shepard, to whom he was married in 1843, died in Cincinnati, Ohio, June 23, 1873. By her he had five sons and one daughter. Four sons and the daughter by that marriage survive him, namely, Samuel W. Hull, Miss V.A. Hull, Charles E. Hull, William L. Hull and John S. Hull, Jr. He was married the second time in Baltimore, on February 2, 1881, to Alexina Woods, daughter of the late Josias Woods, and by her he had one son, Arthur Woods Hull - who survives him. Mr. Hull early in life joined the Methodist Church, and for over fifty years was constant in the faith, and an earnest worker in church and Sunday school, having filled all the offices open to a layman during that time. When he died he was the treasurer and trustee of Emory M.E. Church. Mr. Hull was a member of the Masonic fraternity. A widow survives him.

I have no pictures of his lamp inventions but do have a few of some of his other patents. I am still researching, Mike


Blowlamp Patent - Hull

The Thorium Mantle

A Brief History of the Mantle.


In 1828 the Swedish chemist Johan Berzelius found a way 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. Neither of these discoveries were considered to have any great commercial application at the time, and the first real mantle was still fifty years away. Indoor lighting was still smelly, and was a risky and rather 'dirty'  process relying on an exposed flame to give what was really not a very good light. Many steps were still to be made before these discoveries were applied successfully. Not least, there was a need for a clean and economical fuel oil. Tallow candles made from recovered animal fat were still in use, and as the tasks of workers became more complex the need for better lighting intensified.

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 reliable 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 for good incandescence turned out to be remarkably accurate, and those proportions remained standard for many years afterwards for all kinds of mantles. The two main uses for Thorium in the last century 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 descendants 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. From this time on the mantle was firmly established as an integral component of indoor gas and oil lighting. All that remained was to add pressure to the system to further improve efficiency of combustion.



Light and Fire

Taming the Flame

Fire is perhaps the oldest natural phenomenon on the planet. Those dark early formative centuries when the planet was young weren't really dark, because the juvenile earth was likely born from the dying remains of a fiery sun. Before there was life there was fire. Not as we know it though, oxygen didn't exist in significant amounts for the first few million years, so combustion as we know it didn't exist, but it was mighty hot!

Billions of years passed before our hominid ancestors began to walk upright some three and a half million years ago. Their evolutionary advantage over other species was somewhat 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 visualize a similar sociality all those thousands of years ago. The first ways of utilising fire probably centered around harvesting flame from naturally occurring fires, then keeping it burning by adding wood. Eventually humans learned to start fire themselves, by striking flint stones to get sparks, and by using friction heat from rubbing or turning wooden shapes together.

Fire has it's obvious practical uses - heat and light - but also the very nature of the ancient untameable flame must have seemed god-like to the first thought-enabled hominids. It's no wonder that fire has had religious and ritual significance in nearly all societies round the world. The ability to start a fire and to control its intensity eventually meant that rocks containing lead, iron or copper could be heated, the metal collected and made into tools and weapons. Metal artifacts replaced stone, and enabled more effective hunting. The same control of fire also enabled better cooking and increased the variety of food available.

In Africa, evidence for deliberate exploitation of natural fires may date back as far as 1.5 million years ago.From these early beginnings, humans developed the skills and equipment necessary to make and sustain fire. (Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 2012)

Our ancient ancestors needed light, but for thousands of years the light of an open flame was the best they could do. But it was adequate, 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.