Saturday, August 18, 2007

Just a Little Americana...

The Quiet Hero - Kerosene Lamps

Saving the whales with lighting technology

Summary: The Sept. 3, 1860 edition of the California Fireside Journal said, "Had it not been for the discovery of Coal Oil, the race of whales would soon have become extinct. It is estimated that ten years would have used up the whole family."

Lighting technology had changed very little for centuries leading up to the nineteenth century. Human activities were quite limited to daylight hours in most sectors of humanity because of the restrictions imposed by torches, candles and crude lamps as a lighting source. Colonial times found simple lamps of iron, tin and steel in use. Fuel was often as simple as pine pitch or animal fats.
The first metal burners, to hold wicks, were introduced in the 1700s, as were glass chimneys, to control airflow around the wick. 1783 saw Swiss chemist, Ami Argand, develop a hollow circular wick surrounded by a glass chimney. Although the appearance of glass chimneys on lamps was not common until the 1800s, it signaled the beginning of a new era in lighting technology. Argand’s ideas gave birth to the basic principals behind such successful lamps as Aladdin lamps.

Lamps of the late 1700s were designed to burn whale oil. Whale oil lamps represented the earliest large-scale use of glass in the production of the lamp body. By the early 1800’s glass was the preferred material because it was seamless and would not leak unless broken. Whale oil was a very expensive commodity; one gallon as much as $200 in current currency. Few could afford whale oil, desired for its brighter light and cleaner burn, so most homes used lard oil, rendered fat and often non-glass lamps or candles. The most common light source remained candles and the natural light from the fire on the hearth.

As whales became less plentiful due to heavy fishing, the cost of whale oil continued to climb. The need for a new, less expensive fuel was called for early in the19th century. The next generation of lamp oil was a mixture of alcohol and turpentine; initially called Burning Fluid. It proved to be very volatile and dangerous to use. It was less expensive than whale oil but still costly. People created their own home-mix oils. These were often even more volatile than the commercial fluids!

Kerosene, or coal oil, lamps were developed in the mid-19th century; as early as 1853. Coal oil became a popular 19th century lighting fuel. Distinct and different from petroleum-based oils, kerosene can be derived from either coal or petroleum. Petroleum-derived kerosene became commercially feasible and available by the mid 1800s. When oil was produced in commercial quantities by drilling in Canada, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia circa 1858-1859, the era of whale oil, fluid oil and such was over. The New England whaling fleet had ceased to operate due to the American Civil War; which averted a clash between whalers and oilmen. By war’s end the advances in petroleum had largely made the question of competition from whale oil moot. The Sept. 3, 1860 edition of the California Fireside Journal said, "Had it not been for the discovery of Coal Oil, the race of whales would soon have become extinct. It is estimated that ten years would have used up the whole family." In an inadvertent way, early oilmen had become the champions of the whales by advancing the technologies associated with the immerging petroleum industry. Sometimes truth IS stranger than fiction.

As with the whale oil and fluid oil lamps before them, the kerosene lamp was soon replaced by technology. The introduction of the electric light bulb in 1879 heralded the decline in kerosene lamp use in North America. Even so, kerosene lamps remain a prominent source of light and kerosene an important fuel for cooking and heating in many parts of the world, a thought that often escapes us in our high tech culture.


David Wayne Hampton: said...

A very interesting article! So much talk today revolves around pulling away from our dependence on petroleum, that it's probably hard for many people to imagine that the discovery of it saved the largest animals on the face of the earth from extintction. And electricity isn't necessarily a good alternative to kerosene or fuel oil, if the power plant is fueled by coal. Hopefully one day solar panels will become more affordable to the average homebuilder.

Fabian G. Franklin said...

And now the old light bulbs are being replaced by longer lasting and cheaper florescent spiral bulbs. These can save a lot of power and keep the house cooler to boot. Great educational piece here Mike.

Granny Sue said...

I still have the lamps we used until 1989 to light our house. With the frequent power outages, they're right handy.

I knew kerosene replaced whale oil, but I'd never thought of the impact on the whale population. Interesting article.

I heard on the news recently that for around $20,000 a home could be entirely independent of the grid. That seems pretty reasonable to me. Course, do I have $20 thou just laying around?

Mike said...

I wrote this piece as content for heating oil web site that I did some work for. Not only did I find the whale portion of the story fascinating, but also the fact that the petroleum industry, (kerosene in particular), has much of its roots in Appalachia. The whole of the kerosene industry was based at one time with West Virginia as its leader.