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Switching on a flashlight is second nature to the outdoors adventurer and homebody alike. Because the human body is not equipped to see in dark places, flashlights are a vital tool for any camping pack or disaster kit. While grabbing your favorite flashlight to see where that weird noise is coming from in the dark, you may have never considered the history of the flashlight. But the development of the flashlight is a surprisingly fascinating one, with the tool inspired by fire itself. Let’s take a closer look at how handheld torches have blazed a trail through history.
Portable Lighting Throughout History
Beginning with the first prehistoric human to set a tree branch alight, fire has given humans an upper hand as predators, inventors, and adventurers. Archaeological evidence dates the invention of fire to have occurred over 120,000 years ago, with some archaeologists speculating humans had the ability to create fire up to 700,000 years ago. By the time successful ancient civilizations such as Ancient Egypt were organized, flame had been utilized to create the torch and to light oil lamps.
By 3,000 B.C., Egyptians began utilizing rushlights, a type of torch made from reeds or rushes that grew abundantly along the Nile River, soaked in animal fat and set alight. Rushlights were used throughout Europe until the nineteenth century. For example, cattail plants growing in wetland areas make excellent rushlights – give it a try next time you’re testing your survival skills.
Other ancient civilizations, like the Persians in the city of Ur, invented the oil lamp, like this one from 540 B.C. Ancient ceramic or clay oil lamps were shallow dishes of oil with a wick standing upright. Oil was drawn up the wick and lit with flame. Examples of oil lamps in the ancient world abound, from the Romans to ancient Chinese civilizations.
Both torches and lamps accomplished the important job of providing light, but smoke and bad smells, not to mention risk of fire, were often a byproduct of these types of portable lighting.
With the development of candles came a more efficient, more portable, longer-lasting lighting method. Candles were invented by many cultures independently, and varied from rustic lumps of beeswax created by the Ancient Egyptians as early as 3,000 B.C. to the Ancient Chinese whale fat candles that date back to the Qin Dynasty in the first century C.E.
Other sources of wax included seeds and insects in eastern Asia, boiling cinnamon in early India, and fish oil in early North American indigenous cultures. Romans used candles beginning in the first century C.E. and Europeans continued to refine the art of candle making: making candles by dipping a wick in wax caught on in the Medieval Era.
In Europe, candles were mainly used by churches and the wealthy elite; they were too expensive for common people and everyday use.
Closer to modern times, the second U.S. patent ever granted was to Joseph Sampson, a candlemaker, in 1790 for the invention of a new candle making machine. Later machines invented in the nineteenth century industrialized the candle making process, but when kerosene oil began being manufactured in large quantities in the mid-1800s and light created by lighting gas became commonplace, candles became more of a decorative item than a source of light.
After all, candles made from animal fats could become rancid and smelled nothing like the Yankee Candle specimens of modern times. They also produced a lot of smoke and could melt in warmer temperatures.
Kerosene-fueled oil lamps, also called paraffin lamps, ruled the portable lighting scene until the invention of batteries and electric lights. Oil lamps are still used for light by people around the world, especially in rural areas without electric power and with little access to batteries. While these lamps can be relied upon to provide a long-lasting source of light, the risk of a house fire is a threat.
Portable lamps also cannot withstand rain or other bad weather, eliminating lamps as a source of illumination in weather events and many natural disaster situations. The invention of the light bulb, electric light, and the battery were crucial steps toward the flashlight as we know it today.
The Era of Electric Lighting
It is important to note that the time in which early inventions having to do with light bulbs, batteries, and forms of electric lighting were discovered and perfected was a chaotic one, with inventors, scientists, and companies competing for ideas and patents. Although Edison may be most famously known for the invention of the light bulb, his influencers and rivals of the time included Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, Charles Steinmetz, Lewis Latimer, and Philip Diehl, among others.
This history can get confusing and accomplishments in the lighting field were built on top of rivals’ successes. The invention of the flashlight is not a simple story and this explanation only scratches the surface of the dramatic scientific discoveries that resulted in the flashlight as we know it today.
Observing the problems with fire- and gas-powered light, inventors were hot on the trail of electric power and light throughout the 1800s. The first electric light was created in 1802; a device called the Electric Arc Lamp created by a British physicist produced a light briefly when an early form of the battery was connected to a charcoal strip with wires.
However, this battery and the light it produced burned out too quickly and it was not until 1879 when Thomas Edison, building on the success of other scientists of the time, invented the first commercially available light bulb. This invention was capable of producing light for over 13 hours.
For portable electric light to become reality, a way to store energy first had to be invented. The first battery as we know it was invented by Italian physicist Alessandro Volta in 1800. This battery included stacks of copper and zinc disks, separated by salt water-soaked cloth. The reaction occurring inside the battery cells creates a steady electric current.
Over time, the science and power of the battery was perfected, and in 1887 the dry cell battery was invented. This battery used a paste electrolyte instead of salt water, which allowed it to be used in portable objects. Dry cell batteries were mass-produced beginning in 1896, and it was then that battery-powered lights were able to take off.
An Electric Novelty: The First Flashlight
In 1891, a man named Conrad Hubert arrived at Ellis Island from Russia. Having Americanized his name upon arrival from his original Belarusian-Jewish name, Akiba Horowitz, Hubert had been a successful business owner in Russia but fled his country in fear of persecution. In the United States, Hubert tried to get back on his feet by taking on a number of new businesses, including a restaurant, boarding house, and farm, but none achieved success.
In 1896, Hubert opened a novelty shop based on marketing battery-powered items that he named the American Electrical Novelty and Manufacturing Company. Hubert initially sold items like light-up neckties and illuminated flower pots, but as he worked on the product that we know today as the flashlight he renamed the company the American Ever Ready Company.
Hubert bought the idea and the patent for the flashlight from an inventor at his company named David Misell, who obtained the patent in 1899. Misell had previously invented a portable lamp and an early bicycle light and he combined these ideas with Hubert’s failed light-up flowerpot to create a handheld electric torch. This “electric device,” as the patent calls it, was a simple paper tube outfitted with a dry cell battery, a bulb, and a brass refractor. Hubert continued to perfect this invention, patenting an electric circuit closer and adding the Eveready logo to the end cap of the flashlight in 1902.
Because the first batteries (and the lights they powered) did not burn very long, only producing a flash of light, the name flashlight was born. However, this invention launched Eveready as a company and introduced a valuable tool to the world. Hubert donated some flashlights to the local police in 1899 and received praise and publicity. In a matter of a few years, the flashlight was improved and evolved from novelty item to vital tool for first responders. Hubert’s 1903 flashlight patent included an on/off switch and the tool’s classic cylindrical casing.
Developments and Accidents in the Evolution of the Light bulb
In order to make flashlights and other lights provide more continuous, longer-lasting illumination, Eveready worked on bettering the bulb. In the first decade of the 1900s, light bulb makers incorporated higher-quality metal filaments in their bulbs. Tungsten is a superior metal to be used as a light bulb filament, burning brighter and longer than carbon filaments, but until the 20th century, technology had not yet found a way to create tiny filaments of tungsten.
In 1910, General Electric developed a way to manufacture tungsten light bulbs and Eveready incorporated this bulb into the Eveready flashlight. In 1937, Eveready introduced a pre-focused light bulb in the flashlight. This type of bulb was more efficient as it reduced the amount of energy needed to create the same amount of light as previous iterations of the flashlight.
The incandescent light bulb was improved and the cost continued to decline through the 20th century, but this type of light bulb was not very efficient. Fluorescent lighting was developed in Europe in the first half of the century, but only really caught on in the U.S. with the arrival of World War II and the need to efficiently light war plants and other wartime buildings. Fluorescent lamps and flashlights were marketed in the 1980s by a few companies.
However, an experimental mistake in 1962 led to the lighting mechanism of the modern flashlight. While working on a project to create a semiconductor laser, Nick Holonyack, Jr. happened upon the light-emitting diode, or LED. These efficient diodes made their debut in the 1990s and now commonly replace incandescent light bulbs in many forms of electric lighting, including flashlights.
The Evolution of the Battery
Meanwhile, the second piece of the puzzle in creating a more efficient, more affordable, longer-lasting flashlight was the power-producing battery. The dry cell battery made of nickel and cadmium powered flashlights through much of the 20th century, but is rarely used today due to cadmium’s toxicity.
In the 1950s, Canadian engineer Lewis Urry invented the alkaline battery that most households use today. With zinc and manganese in the electrodes and potassium hydroxide serving as the alkaline electrolyte, these batteries are inexpensive and used in a range of common electronics, from television remotes to flashlights.
Still Shining After All These Years
Over time, various companies tweaked the flashlight, adding features to improve ease of use, safety, and functionality. The flashlight evolved into different forms, including handheld camping lanterns, children’s toys, and penlights. Today’s flashlight offerings are diverse in their features and capabilities. Rechargeable flashlights and hand-powered flashlights offer peace of mind that a dead battery will not mean loss of light, while LED flashlights reduce light dimming and provide brighter light than traditional incandescent-lit flashlights.
Modern flashlights are able to strobe, adjust the beam to wider or narrower widths, reach football fields in length, and provide tens of thousands of hours of light. Both synthetic and metallic casings make flashlights more durable and waterproof than ever, and it’s easy to find a solid flashlight for an affordable cost.
What’s next for flashlights? Military, law enforcement, rescue personnel, and tech-loving recreationists continue to drive flashlight technology for modern needs. Advances in tomorrow’s flashlights will likely reflect today’s battery and LED research. A change could also come in the form of lens and casing improvements. Accessory features like memory technology and remote pressure switches are already being rolled out in high-end models, providing a personalized feel to the flashlight. All we know for sure is that for flashlights and those who use them, the future is bright.
From humble origins as fat-covered bundles of reeds and smelly tallow candles, handheld lighting has been utilized and improved on by humans as long as we’ve been playing with fire. The flashlight may seem a humble, yet reliable tool, but its history has as many twists and turns as the switchbacks of a mountain trail. Take a trip back in time and explore the history of your most important camping companion, the flashlight.
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