Why do hurricane lanterns look like that?
We’ve taken a look at a few different lighting technologies in past videos, but so far they’ve all been of the electric persuasion. However, [match is struck] technology isn’t limited to the realm of electricity. This simple candle contains what was at one point a marvelous new invention: The self-trimming wick. See, most modern candle wicks are designed so that they curl as the candle burns away. That causes the tip of the wick to leave the body of the flame, allowing it to burn away in the oxygen-rich fresh air. And this is a surprisingly recent development.
As late as 1800, people were lamenting how annoying wick trimming was. Imagine how annoyed you’d be if you needed special scissors to trim the top of your light bulbs every half-hour. See, the thing about a candle is the wick is not what’s burning. It’s the wax that burns.
Candle wax is a solid, combustible fuel, and the wick is simply a clever way to get the fuel to melt, vaporize, and combust. Once liquid, capillary action causes the molten wax to travel up the wick's fibers, and once near the top it will vaporize. The vaporized fuel mixes then with the oxygen-rich air, so it burns and creates a flame. The wick is just the fuel conveyance device, and the solid fuel is a convenient form factor. Before wicks like these were developed which could leave the flame’s path, the wick would simply get longer relative to the candle as it burned, or sometimes they’d form a sort of mushroom shape which disturbed the flow of the fuel. This made candles burn poorly, often with lots of soot or sometimes too intensely, so periodic trimming of the wick was required as the candle wax was consumed.
This hasn’t entirely gone away as anyone with an artisanal scented candle can attest. But this video isn’t about candles. Instead, it’s … well, OK, you saw the thumbnail and the title. It’s about these things. The hurricane lantern.
Now that’s an interesting name, isn’t it? We’ll get to that. Now, I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with these things. They have such a distinctive shape.
Why? What’s with all this metal piping, and especially this weird big thing up here? Shall we connect some technologies? Yes, please! But first… lights! Aghh! Ugh... A funny thing about the human experience is that we had figured out fire long before we had really **figured out** fire. And when we first thought we had figured it out, we were very wrong. See, we used to think things which could burn were phlogisticated, meaning they contained phlogiston. Ya know, the burny stuff? And when we burned it, it used up all the phlogiston, so it became dephlogisticated. Oh and fires? Well, they go out in enclosed spaces because the air can only take on so much phlogiston.
I like that word quite a lot, but it’s, uh, wrong. It wasn’t until 1773, after Antoine Lavoisier had described combustion theory, that we knew how and why stuff burned. And once the science was settled, we could make improved devices using that newfound scientific understanding. Ain’t progress neat? But hold on, we’ve skipped something. Lanterns like this weren’t the successor to candles, exactly.
Well, OK they... they kinda were… we gotta talk about oil lamps for a second. Before even the candle we were using oil lamps, but not like this. Ya know that story about the guy who rubs a lamp and a genie comes out or whatever? Yeah, like, like that one.
At least, that was one style of lamp. If you were ever like, "that’s a lamp?" Yes, that’s... that's a lamp. You’d fill it with some sort of oil, lots of oils will do the trick, and then you’d stick a piece of string or something through the spout. And once the wick soaked up the oil up you could light it, and there you go.
A lamp. Only about as bright as one of these candles but hey, it was better than nothing. Oil lamps have been around for millennia, with the oldest known example dating back to 10,000 BCE, possibly earlier.
And they hold a lot of cultural significance in many parts of the world and in many religions, so they’re still used but mainly ceremoniously. Anyway, the point is burning a liquid fuel with a wick actually predates the candle by a lot. As in, many thousands of years. This thing contains innovations that came about thanks to our newfound knowledge of combustion, but the idea of using a liquid fuel was a return to form and not anything new. Ah but it’s not so simple.
There’s also the fuel this burns, which was its own innovation, and there’s the fact that the flat wick incorporated here was an invention that predated Levoisier’s combustion theory. See, rather than just a piece of string or cord, a flat woven wick created a long flat flame. This produced a wide flame, almost like a wall of fire, which is considerably brighter. But it was first tried in 1770, a few years before combustion theory was put forth. As a matter of fact the first true innovation that can be pegged as a direct result of combustion theory was the Argand burner, which didn’t use a flat wick but a round one. Having heard this Lavoisier guy talk about oxygen in the air being what drives the combustion process, François-Pierre-Amédée Argand was like [said in an inexplicably Southern-US accent] “hey, what if I made a wick that had a big ‘ol hole in the middle so air could make it through the center of the flame?” And so he tried it.
And it worked! The wick looked a little something like this. Now, don’t let the fact that this is green fool you. This is in fact a red herring. But, uh, we’ll burn that bridge when we get there. Anyway, a glass chimney placed around the wick provided a directed path for the air. It would enter as fresh air from below, the oxygen would be consumed by the flame, and the combustion byproducts would travel up the chimney, conveniently creating a draft to pull in fresh air from below.
Since fresh air could also travel through the wick’s center, more oxygen was available for the flame. The result was that this new lamp burned much more cleanly than lamps before it, and produced a flame 6 to 10 times as bright as a candle. Wow! Good work, Argand! Oh, and he also devised a way to raise and lower the wick, which allowed for finer control over the flame’s size.
Pretty clever, this Argand guy. However, being an invention of the 1780s, the Argand lamp still burned stuff like vegetable oils. The fuel delivery method wasn’t quite like what goes on here because oils of the time were too thick to simply be soaked up by a long wick. Oh, and speaking of oils of the time, experimentation eventually found that the best oil suited for the Argand lamp was, you may have guessed, whale oil. Now, for clarity, Argand’s new lamp wasn’t the first thing or indeed lamp that used whale oil.
The whaling industry existed long before then, so it’s not like Argand was the Thomas Midgley Junior of whales. Probably didn’t help ‘em, though. He also wasn't Welsh.
But now we’re going to ignore the tubular wick and go back to the simple flat ones because, well, that’s what’s in these things. And now let’s ignore these things and instead we're gonna talk about this Cracker Barrel-esque table lamp. And actually, ignore the lamp for a second. Kerosene. Which some of you call paraffin to be confusing. Although to be fair, the word kerosene was derived from the Greek word for wax, which is keros.
What a mess. Oh and also it’s jet fuel. But from here on out I’m calling it kerosene and it’s what’s in here. Kerosene has a convoluted history which I don’t really want to get into right now, but it was among the first distilled petroleum products and rather quickly superseded whale oil for illumination, which delighted whales the oceans over. It should be noted, though, that even relatively small cities had already moved away from liquid fuel lamps and lanterns as central coal gas supplies and distribution were pretty common by the time kerosene was invented.
Kerosene lamps were mostly relegated to rural or small-town life, and wherever portable illumination was required. Which is probably why these lamps and lanterns evoke the incredibly specific Old West and country vibes they do today. They simply weren’t needed in the sprawling metropolis of… Baltimore. Not exactly a joke, by the way. Baltimore had the first gasworks in the United States, built in 1816.
At the time, Baltimore’s population was something around 50,000 people. These days that’s a pretty average suburb. Kerosene wouldn’t even be invented for another 30 years at least, depending on how you look at it, leaving plenty of time for the town-gas industry to be copy-pasted from city to city. Oh, and also there’s camphine, a different liquid fuel made from turpentine and grain alcohol which saw use in-between whale oil and kerosene, so there’s that complication. But anyway, we’re all over the place here.
As usual. So, uh, let’s get back to country-fried steak by looking at this thing. One of the reasons kerosene as a fuel was a big deal was that it could burn cleanly without producing soot. Earlier attempts at making kerosene-like fuels failed in this regard.
But you’ll see that when I light this... Well, That's actually pretty smoky. I don't know how well you can see it. But that’s only because the chimney isn’t in place. Once I put it on, the flame changes shape, it stops producing smoke, and most importantly gets much brighter, too. With the chimney in place, the exhaust gasses have only one direction to go.
Straight up. The shape of the glass also helps - the kink here creates a slight constriction which helps form a steady draft. And that draft does the most important thing for the flame. It pulls in fresh air from below. But it’s even more clever than that.
Notice that there’s nowhere for air to enter this space except for the slit in the burner. There are plenty of holes allowing air into the burner itself, you can see them from below quite easily, but it must pass right near the wick in order to get out. The result is a forcibly-induced supply of fresh, oxygen-rich air delivered right to the point of combustion, giving a bright, smoke-free, and stable flame. Now I want to note that you don’t always see burners where the only source of fresh air is through the slit. Sometimes there are other holes down here, which are mainly used to help cool the glass..
However, what’s interesting about this is that it is effectively a simplification of the Argand burner. After all, how beneficial is a hollow tube for a wick when you could simply pass fresh air over both sides of a flat one? Seemingly not a whole lot, at least not in the age of kerosene. Tubular-wick designs didn’t go away, exactly, but it seems we were OK with the flat wick in most cases. Now, I’ve been trying to find a definitive answer for who invented this specific burner and when. And, well, I was about to say “I’ve seen the same answer a few times in a few places but it’s not super well-sourced” but then I remembered patents are a thing and this appears to be the one. I wasn’t completely sure this was the first burner designed like this, especially since the patent opens with “My improvement relates to that class of flat wick lamps provided with a cone or deflector, such as is now in general use” and this part right here is called the deflector.
Sounded like this was already an established thing. Except I kept reading! And I found… typos. But more importantly, the inventor complains about the current state of the art. “Thus constructed, experience has shown that the combustion of the oil was imperfect, a large portion escaping in the room unconsumed, creating an exceedingly obnoxious odor, while the flame was far from being as brilliant, and hence as illuminating, as might be desired.” Ah, but he goes on. “These defects, it has been discovered, are in great measure to be attributed to the manner in Which the air is supplied to the flame on the inside of the cone or deflector.”
Aha! And further on… “To obviate these defects and to provide a flat-wick lamp that will give a clear, steady, and brilliant light with less consumption of oil, or a more thorough combustion of the oil, is one of the objects of my present improvement.” This guy knows about combustion! Who is he? Well, this patent was submitted by Michael A Dietz in 1858. That’s right.
That Dietz. Well, his brother anyway. Assuming the state of things as presented in this patent is correct, not only were kerosene lamps prior to this one smelly obnoxious things, they could also sometimes explode because until Dietz came along, the only way anyone had figured out how to keep the smell of this new fuel at bay was to seal the fuel tank as completely as possible. So pressure could build, there is after all a sizable fire right above it, and boom. It really seems like this was the first time someone with a knowledge of combustion science tried to make a kerosene lamp.
Or at least, a flat-wick kerosene lamp. And Dietz succeeded! OK but way back when the question I led with had to do with what the deal is with all this piping and stuff. Well, allow me to fill you in on the deets. While this lamp which would be at home on a table next to a game of peg solitaire uses the same sort of burner that Dietz had come up with, this is what’s known as a dead-flame lamp. In still air, it burns brilliantly and steadily. But introduce some wind, even just a little bit, and things don’t go so well.
Very little air disturbance is needed to throw off the draft of this lamp, and indeed to blow it out. So, this design by itself was really only suitable for indoor use. And that’s what these lanterns were invented to solve. Except this design wasn’t the first successful one.
That would be... this design. Now my fellow lantern aficionados and I, we call ourselves Dietz Nuts, can tell the difference apart from a mile away. Bofa deez (both of these) lanterns succeed at protecting their flames from the wind, but the early design came with a serious drawback. Let’s take a look at how it protects the flame.
Remember how in this lamp the air supply comes from below the burner? Well, take a closer look at where it comes from here. There are holes allowing air into the space of the glass volume, in this style of lantern that’s called the globe, but they’re not supplying the wick with combustion air. That still comes from the space below the burner.
If we remove the burner we can see there’s an open space above the fuel tank. And that space is connected to these tubes. Follow them and of course we end up at the very top. This design, which today we call the hot-blast lantern, was invented by John H. Irwin in 1869.
It ultimately brings in fresh air for combustion from up here. You may see a problem with that idea. You’re correct to be concerned. But this does work. In front of a fan, the flame doesn’t stay steady by any means but it stays bright and doesn’t get sooty. It’s not impossible for the light to go out, but it has much more protection than the dead-flame design.
Their knack at being wind-resistant is where they get their name from, by the way. Hurricane lanterns. The flame stays lit because the globe itself prevents wind from directly hitting the flame, and the length of the tubes serves as a sort of shock-absorber for the flame’s air supply, slowing down any gust of wind that might make its way into the tubes at the top. Additionally, the split in direction helps ensure any air that does get blown in gets applied to both sides of the flame equally, and doesn’t serve to blow it in one direction and possibly out.
And although the perforations surrounding the burner don’t help get oxygen to where the wick is, they do introduce air to the globe which keeps the glass from overheating. And, in a roundabout way, they probably do end up providing necessary oxygen because of the glaring flaw in this design. So, uh, when something gets combusted the oxygen in the air that made that combustion possible gets used up. It ends up in combustion byproducts, mainly carbon dioxide and water vapor. And you’ll notice that the intake of the fresh air supply is directly above the flame. This lantern collects some of its exhaust gasses and sends them back to the burner.
Obviously we don’t have a perfect seal here by any means so enough fresh air gets introduced that combustion is still possible. But the recirculation of exhaust gasses isn’t ideal. I’m hoping this is visible on-camera but if it isn't, trust me that the flame of the hot-blast lantern is noticeably yellower than the dead-flame lamp. The fact that the wick is supplied with partially-spent air in the lantern causes the flame to burn less intensely.
This means it isn’t as hot, so the incandescing soot particles that make the flame visible and ultimately produce its light are also not quite as hot, and thus they appear yellower and slightly dimmer. This is certainly a worthwhile trade-off for wind-resistance, but it is a bummer. Luckily we’d fix that just a few years later. Indeed the same person, John H. Irwin, would patent this design in 1873.
Or rather, a design which uses the same principle, anyway. The drawings don’t look much like this at all. This new design, which today we call the cold-blast lantern, allowed for the best of both worlds.
You’ll notice that now there is a seal at the top of the globe, and rather than a simple tube and funnel contraption we have this much more complicated chimney setup. However we have the same exact idea from the tubes downward. They end up in that same space above the fuel tank, and that’s how the wick gets its combustion air. The key difference in this lantern is that fresh air and combustion air (spent air - script error!) no longer intermingle. Hot, spent air from the flame travels up the chimney, but that chimney is actually inside this larger collar.
It’s now spring-loaded to put downward pressure on the globe and keep it sealed. And the air-supply tubes are now open to the space surrounding the chimney. And the difference is significant. Again, I’m not sure if this will be visible on camera, but the flame of the cold-blast lantern is much whiter and brighter than the hot-blast. In fact, these lamps are burning the same exact fuel and their wicks are the same size, so the only difference between these two is the design of the lantern itself.
Cleverly, the currents produced by the exhaust gases leaving the chimney actually help pull fresh air into the lantern’s intake tubes, although I must admit I’m a little skeptical about that detail, or at least how it’s worded. I mean, the flame itself will create a low-pressure area behind it as the exhaust travels upward, and that’s going to cause the atmosphere to push fresh air into these tubes. I think the only real benefit here is the separation of exhaust and intake but please do let us know otherwise. At any rate, that’s why these lanterns look like this. The knowledge of Lavoisier’s theory of combustion, Argand’s clever hollow wick with lifting mechanism for more complete combustion and flame control, Dietz re-imagining it for kerosene and flat wicks, and Irwin’s designs for wind-resistance ultimately combined into this lantern.
Well, not this exact lantern - Dietz alone sold plenty of different models, in fact, here’s a larger one. The Blizzard. But this very recognizable design became the de facto outdoor lantern of the country and other rural settings for decades. Oh, and one of the greatest benefits of this style of lantern (more generally called tubular lanterns) is that it must be upright in order for it to work. If for some reason they become tipped over, they quickly become starved of oxygen and will self-extinguish in a few seconds.
This is important because there’s a tank full of some flammable liquid down there and it will eventually start seeping out no matter what so when a lantern is knocked over it’s best for it to go out as quickly as possible I’ve been looking for a definitive explanation of why this happens without much luck, but I think a reasonably explanation is simply the flame ends up stuck inside the deflector, so exhaust gases can't rise out of it and instead they fill up the deflector and eventually the tubes, snuffing out the flame. Honestly I think this safety feature was kind of a happy accident. And now I want to talk about a rather sad fact about these lanterns. These are new. These are not antiques, and in fact... I got them from Amazon.
Now it’d be one thing if these were sold for nostalgia’s sake or for emergency camping use but did you notice the holographic - or is this properly called prismatic? - anyway these stickers? That’s not Dietz being full of themselves or anything. In large swaths of the world, these are still in general use as everyday illumination, and to many folks this is a necessity of life. Knowing you got a real Dietz lantern and not some knock-off is important. If this website I found is to be believed, the amount of kerosene used in these lamps and lanterns on an annual basis is about exactly the same as the annual consumption of jet fuel in the United States. Remember, jet fuel is essentially what these burn so that’s pretty much an apples-to-apples comparison oddly enough. Now that statistic is from a book from 2012 and we’ve probably made some progress in that regard, but isn’t that, frankly, depressing? Huge numbers of people are stuck using what is to us more than a century-old technology simply because electrification hasn’t yet made it to their part of the world.
And to be clear, although the carbon emissions of that are way worse than I thought they could possibly be since, you know, it’s as bad as US air travel somehow, that’s not what concerns me at all. This is a humanitarian problem that we need to be fixing. Like, these are charming and interesting and historically notable but they’re also… bad! The reason I’ve not had them lit while shooting most of this talking head is that… using them indoors is not exactly a great idea. Sure, they burn cleanly enough that we don’t see soot, at least when properly adjusted, but they are still smelly and unpleasant to be around. And we know long-term exposure comes with significant health risks. Besides that, they’re still dangerous in the more immediate sense.
Sure, they’ll go out if tipped over, but you’ll still have a puddle of kerosene to deal with if that happens. They’re very hot when running, refueling them is fiddly - I mean, the spout on these is really small - and like, it’s fire! Sure, it’s not an open flame which is good, but these can and do start fires. Thankfully organizations exist today that are doing the very overdue work of replacing these lanterns in the developing world.
You’ve probably heard of some of them and their clever ideas - like the GravityLight which uses the energy of a falling weight to power an LED. And that’s the thing - these are brighter than you probably expect, especially if you’ve never used one before. But it’s still not much light, maybe 10 watts incandescent equivalent? Something like that.
With efficient LEDs, a small solar panel and pretty small battery can easily beat these by a lot. But anyway, these lanterns did not represent the end-point of fuel-combustion for lighting. Although, sadly, after the cold-blast lantern we never made that next logical step which would of course have been the Baja-blast lantern. However, this green herring from before? This is an Aladdin lamp.
This kerosene lamp uses technology that was developed right at the end of the road for gas lighting. This is an incandescent lamp. It's not electric, mind you, but incandescent.
And we’ll explore it in a future video. Maybe even the next one! But you know me. Probably not. To close-out, I have two things.
First, if the cold-blast lantern was such an improvement over the hot-blast design, which for the most part it was, why didn’t the hot-blast design become obsolete? Well, this does actually have an advantage. The recirculation of the exhaust, while it does make it burn less intensely, makes the lantern more fuel-efficient. If you’re concerned about the cost of fuel more than you are light output and quality, it can be a better choice.
Also, they tend to be less smelly thanks to that recirculation, so they can be a better option for indoor-use, though honestly I don’t notice a difference between the two of these on that front. I take that back, when getting the B-roll shots it became apparent that the cold-blast lantern was *significantly* smellier than the hot-blast. Not that I would suggest you should use either one indoors. Seriously. It’s unpleasant to the point that I needed to take breaks.
The second thing I want to mention is Irwin’s focus on pre-heating the combustion air. He touts that as benefit in both of his patents, but I think this was entirely misguided. I mean, anyone who knows anything about wasting their money on car modifications will tell you that you need a cold-air intake for more power. Which is exactly why the intake of your car is already as far forward as possible so it's away from the hot bits of the engine but anyway, the hot-blast lantern definitely does pre-heat the air but the cold-blast… it doesn’t. Cold is in its name, after all.
I mean, once it’s been lit for a while the tubes do get pretty warm because they’re made of metal and partly touch the other hot metal bits up here, but at the bottom they’re barely warmer than ambient temp. Because only fresh air is going through them. In Irwin's’ original drawings for this design preheating the incoming air was obviously something he still wanted to accomplish despite separating the intake and exhaust. But I can't figure out why. I don’t know if he thought it was a logical thing to do because of the success of the hot-blast lantern, and indeed in that patent he touts it as a benefit.
But I don’t really get it. Maybe he thought warmed air was more supportive of the flame? Or maybe there’s a real benefit to it that I’m missing. But I really don’t think it actually helps make the lantern work better, and Dietz’s designs certainly don’t do much to heat the intake air. It’s really just incidental. Anyway… toodles! ♫ phlogisticatedly smooth jazz ♫ Technology isn’t limited to the realm of electricity.
This simply candle contains what was at one point a marvelous new invention, simplifying the li - *laughs* And it didn’t even light. However [match is struck] It is harder to light a match in complete darkness than you would think! However [match is struck] Failed to light a match again. Great track record.
This simple candle contains an innovation that was at one point a marvelous new invention, simplifying the… can’t even light a dang candle. ...incorporated here was an innovation that predated Levoisier’s combuston theory… conFORKIN' theory. Earlier attempts at making kerosene-like fuels failed in this regard, but… [laughs] That was fun! Is there a burn mark? Oh, good.
Table’s First Burn Mark! ...was to seal the fuel tank completely as poss.. As completely. Oops. My fellow lantern aficionados and I, we call ourselves Dietz Nuts, can tell the difference apart from a mi [breaks into laughter] ..can tell the difference apart from a mile away. Bofa deez [breaks into laughter again] Now, my fellow lantern aficionados and I, we call ourselves... [yet again fails to not laugh]
Bofa deez lanterns succeeded at protecting their [he’s losing it] flames from the wind... [and more laughter] Bofa deez lanterns [lost it again] Bofa deez lanterns succe... [and there we go once more] Shoot.
Well, that doesn’t work! Learn something new every day. ...creates a long, flat flame. This produce… [brain.exe has stopped] As a matter of fact, the first true innovation can be pegged to… Glad that didn’t go out yet, ‘cause that was [throat clear] But anyway, we’re all over the place here (as usual) so. [clunk] I forgot this is here.
You’re really tall! Although to be fair, the word “paraffin” was derived shhhh that’s the wrong word! I thought I had a good handle on how to light matches when I first set out to make this video. As you could see here, this turned out not to be the case. I honestly don't know where I went wrong in life. I guess for me, when I use a Diamond it'll be rough. See, it's a pun on "diamond in the rough."
Shut up, it's hilarious.