C.S. sends me a recent find at the wonderful Destined for Grace Thrift store in Goleta, a 19th-century nautical oil lamp that has been electrified.
The story of her lamp is the story of the “mirror of light,” or the catoptric (after the Greek word for “mirror/reflection”) system of illumination.
Simplified, this system “throws” light by means of reflections off a polished metal parabolic surface. Sounds easy? When a reflection is behind a light source, the parabola shape, when polished, concentrates the light. That allows the light to spread in a wider arc than light “thrown” by a flat or circular polished surface.
The problem was how to handcraft a sheet of polished metal into a parabolic shape.
Attempts were made in the 17th and early 18th centuries to hammer copper, cast steel, plate silver over metal.
Not until William Hutchinson developed a mosaic of faceted glass mirrors applied to a parabolic surface in 1763 did we have a functional system.
Hutchinson let the nautical world know about this in his 1777 book “A Treatise on Practical Seamanship,” which revolutionized nautical lighting, especially the construction of lighthouses.
The seafaring world now had a functioning reflector system, via the mosaic of mirrors in a parabolic shape, to concentrate a light source.
Now we needed a functioning light source, something more efficient than early oil lamps and better than candles.
Enter the Argand lamp of 1780. (Two inventions that are not designed to enable the other are a phenomenon in history! Yet they seem made to happen together.)
Aime Argand’s lamp employed a hollow wick (the shape of a sleeve) inside a circular glass chimney. What was the fuel? On a ship, it was whale or seal oil.
The photo of C.S.’s lamp does not show the oil reservoir, which would have been necessarily mounted high over the burner because fuels were heavy, and gravity was needed for flow of the viscous liquid to the burner. Other fuels were used, such as vegetable oil, colza, olive oil or lard. You can see the flume at the top of C.S.’s lamp.
We know the lamp was designed for a moving vessel because of the handle. A lamp had to sway to remain at horizon level, which is where the seamen needed the light, especially if they used the lamp to signal another vessel.
This lamp was mounted on a gimbal so it could pivot. You will notice that the handle is affixed to the lamp, and not hinged, for this reason.
Similar lamps to this were used on the railroads in the mid to late 19th century, and this could have been a railroad lamp, but its size at 24 inches tall indicates otherwise. (I could be wrong, however, as I see many railroad lanterns of similar shape, used as the main headlight of a train, which also used the parabolic reflector we see used on nautical lamps in the latter 19th century. Perhaps a collector of either railroad or nautical lamps will let me know if I am right.)
The whaling industry of the 18th and 19th centuries harvested whale oil from either whale blubber or from the head of a sperm whale. Sperm whale oil was used by various wealthy countries’ navies. I believe CS’s lamp was thusly employed, and it is the shape I find used on French vessels. The lamp is not marked or labelled, which is not uncommon for those used on 19th-century government vessels.
Seamen called such lamps “Betty,” a bastardization of the German word “Besser.”
Where on the ship was this Betty used? The answer is in the material: tin and tin-plated iron. The lamp shows signs of old paint, thus was likely a Poop lanthorn (lantern) used in the stern. The lamp was monitored carefully because the fuel was flammable, and the reflector had to be polished every four hours to remove soot.
I can date the lamp to 1850-1860, because by 1860 kerosene (coal oil) was used. But in domestic use, kerosene had a short life as it was smelly and smokey.
By 1865, paraffin revolutionized lighting, but not the way a certain patent (US Patent 223,898) did. That was Thomas A. Edison’s landmark patent for the first incandescent lamp of 1880, not that long ago.
C.S.’s lamp is worth $250 in the present condition. Think of her lamp when you flick on the light switch, and see the light that was so hard-won for years — especially the light required for safety on a moving vessel.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.