The Origin and Development of the Incandescent Paraffin Lamp
A.R.J. RAMSEY, C.P A., (Member of Council)
(Read at the Science Museum, London, 2 October 1968)

(Due to the high-res pictures, takes it some time to load.)

The use of lamps extends far back in human history as archaelogical research has revealed that oil-burning lamps were in use while the ancient civillisations - Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman - flafourished.

These lamps made in pottery or metal were of a simple type comprising a reservoir, a burner opening or nozzle, an air inlet and a wick. The capillarity of a woven or braided wick was discovered at an early date to give more satisfactory results than burning the oil fuel direct and was the first in a long series of evolutionary steps which finally produced the incandescent mantle lamp as known today. 

The fuel used in these early lamps and for many centuries afterwards was oil derived from animal or vegetable sources and the illuminating power was so low that candles were preferred and were employed as indoor illuminants until well into the nineteenth century, when the discovery of mineral oil gave a fresh impetus to the development of lamps. The importance of candles as illuminants is emphasised by the fact that among the 81 Livery Companies in the City of London, two; the Wax Chandlers and the Tallow Chandles were makers of candles but there was no Company devoted to lamp manufacture.
It is not the purpose of this paper to give a complete history of oil lamps, but some early examples must be described as at various times they introduced features such as central draught, annular wick, inner and outer air supply and flame spreader all of which were eventually brought into combination to construct an oil burner capable of producing a blue flame and one to which an incandescent mantle could be applied.

The first step in the long, series of inventions which ultimately produced the incandescent mantle lamp was made by Ami Argand (1755-1803), a Swiss resident in London who obtained a Patent in 1784. The invention was designed to avoid waste of fuel in the form of smoke or soot and consisted in causing a current of air to pass through the inside of the flame and another current of air on the outside of the flame by the use of a "chimney, dome, funnel, tube or pipe" through which the fresh air was to pass.  Unfortunately, Argand's specification was not accompanied by a drawing, but this burner established a type which is referred to by his name in a number of later publications and consists of a burner in which the wick is in the form of a hollow cylinder so that air rises within and without the flame, producing more complete oxidation and therefore a brighter light. The addition of a cylindrical chimney creates a greater draught, at the same time promoting steadiness in the flame by preventing side draughts.  A "demand for improved lighting grew up in the late eighteenth century as a concomitant of the Industrial Revolution.

There was a steady improvement in the quality of lamps available; between 1783 and 1836 there were introduced in succession the flate-woven wick- and the circular oil burner with cylindrical wick and glass chimney known from its inventor's name as Argand (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). But the better lamps only emphasizeed the poor illuminating quality of both the vegetable and the animal oils in use.  Gas-lighting was unquestionably superior, but its virtual restriction to large rooms and to urban areas encourages the attempt to find a satisfactory alternative" (Short History of Technology, Derry & Williams, oxford Univ. (1960) 516).


The reference in the page quoted above to the year 1836 is presumably to Houghton´s lamp (Fig. 3). This was a draught lamp with an annular wick and an outer annular air passage. The lamp is unusual in that it includes a spring actuated piston for forcing the liquid fuel upwards to the burner. This burner was of the Argand type and Houghton's drawings include an illustration of the Argand burner then in common use.

At this period difficulties were still being exerienced in providing an air supply sufficient to effect complete combustion of the oil fuel and the Bude light invented by Gurney & Rixon in 1839 is an example of how earlier inventors endeavoured to overcome the air supply difficulty (Fig. 4). 


This burner, which was of the Argand type, was described by its inventors as the "Olio-oxygen or Bude Light" and was designed to burn inflammable gas obtained by distillation from coal, oil, bituminous substances, etc.  It was primarily designed as a signalling lamp and, to enable an clear, bright light to be obtained (using the fuels then available) a jet or stream of oxygen was introduced through a central tube to the interior of the flame at the top of a tubular wick.

The widespread use of oil lamps in the latter half of the cenury was due directly to the discovery of how to distil light fractions from the heavy mineral oils alrady known to exist in various parts of the world.  In 1848 James Young started a works in Derbyshire to refine petroleum from a spring discovered in connection with a coal seam and patented a process of low temperature distallation in 1850. Markets were soon created for lamp oil which Young called "paraffin oil" and introduced suitable lamps for burning it as an illuminant and according to The Dictionaiy of Applied Chemnistry (Sir Edward Thorpe, Vol.  V, (1924) 66).

"Paraffin oil rapidly became the light of the people all over Britain."

Petroleum from oil springs began to be produced in quantity in Pannsylvania in 1859 and for many years thereafter the United States continued to be the principal source of paraffin for lamps.  From the 1850's onwards there was a wide use of paraffin lamps, as large areas in Europe and America were still without coal gas supplies and electric lighting did not come into general use until the end of the century.

The great demand for oil lamps provided an incentive to inventors and throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century numerous burners were evolved to eliminate the emission of smoke and smell. Many of these early lamps employed a flat wick whose upper end projected through a slot in a burner cone which was surrounded by a glass chimney to induce an air supply and protect the flame from side draughts. A typical example of such a lamp is that patented in the U.S.A. in 1877 by J. H. Boardman, which had a flat wick adjustable by means of a spiked pinion and emerging at its upper end through a slot in the burner in the base of which is an annular inlet for air to support combustion (Fig. 5).


The patentee was aware of the dangers attending to use of lamp oil since he emphaises the principal feature of his invention as a heat and gas-stopping attachment. This form of design was gradually improved by the introduction of the annular wick which was later to prove an important factor in the design of incandescent burners. An example of one of these late nineteenth century lamps is Sepulchre´s invention in 1893, wherein upper end of the annular wick is surrounded by a double cone to supply air to the tip of the wick and a supply to the flame which was diffused into a bowl-like form by a disc flame spreader.

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Bibliography Discussion Appendix I Appendix II