A Brief History of Flame: The Story of the Everyday Lighter

“It's not the order in which things are invented that makes them the most impressive, it's the importance they have to humanity. So my number one is this: fire with a flick of the fingers.” – Stephen Fry

Some items have been around for so long, and have become so embedded in the modern world, that it’s hard to imagine a world without them; the lighter may be one of these. Even Stephen Fry, as part of Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Gadgets documentary, named the cigarette lighter as the greatest invention in human history.

From the iconic Zippo lighter and disposable plastic varieties, to the obscure contraptions of old, the history of the lighter is a fascinating one, so we thought we’d tell you some more about it.

1823 - Döbereiner's lamp

In 1823, Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, a German chemist and professor at the University of Jena, invented one of the earliest lighters; however, it looked nothing like a modern-day lighter.

Also known as a ‘tinderbox’ (or "Feuerzeug"), the lamp was an exceptionally popular item, reportedly selling over a million units in the 1820s.

The bizarre looking contraption worked by reacting zinc with dilute sulphuric acid in order to produce hydrogen. To use, a valve was lifted, firing the hydrogen towards a porous form of platinum known as ‘platinum sponge’. This then reacted with the atmospheric oxygen, heating the platinum and igniting the hydrogen – the result was a steady flame.

1903 - The Advent of Ferrocerium

Ferrocerium is a synthetic alloy that produces very hot and bright sparks when struck. Often incorrectly referred to as ‘flint’, ferrocerium is a different substance completely; the naming similarity stems from flint’s previous usage as a producer of sparks.

Invented in 1903 by Austrian chemist Carl Auer von Welsbach, ferrocerium revolutionised the lighter, as it made creating necessary sparks for ignition easy, and was also a relatively affordable material.

1910-12 - The Ronson Pist-O-Liter and Wonderlite

One of the most well-known classic lighter designs was the Pist-O-Liter, manufactured by Ronson in 1910.

Designed to closely resemble a long-barreled pistol, the trigger released a file-like component which rubbed against a flint-like surface contained in the barrel. This produced sufficient sparks to ignite flammable substances. The long barrel made the Pist-O-Liter a practical choice for applying sparks to harder-to-reach places, such as motor vehicle engines.

Shortly after this in 1912, Ronson developed the Wonderlite, a metal cased lighter more closely resembling modern varieties, known as a ‘permanent match’ style of lighter.

Image Source: https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/vintage-1910-cast-iron-ronson-pisto-434682521

1914-18 - World War I: Improvised lighters

Life in the trenches during the First World War was notably difficult, particularly on the front lines, where resources, tools and general supplies were extremely limited.

Soldiers therefore started to improvise and created everyday tools by hand using whatever discarded items they could find. One of these was a handmade lighter fashioned from an empty bullet cartridge; it even included a holed chimney cap to better protect the flame from wind.

1926 - Ronson Banjo

Ronson went on to refine their design with the Banjo lighter in 1926. Developed in New Jersey, USA, the Ronson Banjo was a huge success thanks to its simple usability and attractive design.

The world’s first automatic pocket lighter, the Ronson Banjo required only the press of a button to generate the flame.

It cost $5.00 at the time, but mint condition versions are worth many hundreds today as collectables.

Image Source: http://ronsonlighters.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/rare-vintage-unique-ronson-lighters.html

1933 - The first Zippo lighter

Inventor George G. Blaisdell introduced what would become the world’s most famous lighter in 1933. The design of the original Zippo proved so popular that it is still popular today, with only small changes.

Early Zippos were made of brass; however, during the Second World War they were manufactured from black crackle steel due to metal shortages. Zippos during wartime were commonly emblazoned with unit crests and other military symbols, a trend which is still popular today.

1945-55 – Post-war Zippos Become an Art-form

The inner mechanisms of Zippo lighters have barely changed since their introduction; however, following the Second World War, they developed into a popular fashion accessory with a huge variety of artistic designs and metals used.

The Zippo quickly became a cultural icon and was widely used in movies, television and advertising. Even today, vintage designs (such as the venetian brass model pictured) are hugely popular with collectors.

1955-75 - Zippo & the Vietnam War

The Zippo lighter developed into a symbol of the American armed forces during the twenty years of the Vietnam War.

American soldiers fighting in Vietnam would often have their Zippo lighters engraved with a variety of personal mottos, slogans, icons and individual designs, commonly reflecting the emotions, beliefs and values of the soldiers themselves during the now infamous conflict.

Vietnam war lighters are now valuable collectors’ items, some fetching huge amounts in auctions.

1962 - Piezoelectric Lighter

The piezoelectric lighter was introduced in the 1960s and was developed as an alternative to fuel burning lighters. Instead of a naked flame, the mechanism here used a small, spring-loaded hammer to hit a quartz crystal. This created voltage when deformed, resulting in an electrical discharge, which served as the ignition.

While still in use today, the piezoelectric lighter’s popularity was relatively short lived, fading out of mainstream use during the 1970s. While not used by smokers, variants of this technology remain in use for more practical purposes such as barbecue lighting.

1973 - The Bic Disposable Lighter

Bic introduced a new disposable variety of lighter in 1973 with the intention of rivaling the popular but relatively expensive metal cased Zippos at the time. Typically, the cheapest lighter on the market, the Bic disposable lighter was extremely popular and remains widely used to this day.

While lacking the artistic or fashion appeal of the Zippo, disposable lighters were perfect for a fast-moving, money conscious society, as they did not require refills and could be easily discarded.

So, what is the future of the lighter?

Despite the recent decrease in the number of smokers in both the UK and the USA, traditional lighters have managed to maintain popularity.

This is thanks in part to their status as a fashion accessory alongside its practical uses. To capitalise on this, Zippo’s brand has expanded in recent years to include a whole range of apparel, accessories and other gadgets. This is not dissimilar to the expansion made by Harley Davidson Motorcycles, who to this day are a significant fashion brand, as well as motorcycle manufacturer.

It’s unsurprising, then, that Harley Davidson and Zippo have collaborated to produce some of the most iconic and popular examples in the Zippo range.

We believe classic metal lighters have a brighter future than disposable varieties due to their long lifespan, individuality and vintage appeal. Of course, only time will tell...