Oil has been used as a fuel for lighting and cooking since ancient times. Earliest oil lamps were fibres burnt in oil of some kind placed in a shell or a crevice in a rock. Communities used whatever type of oil was available locally - from plants, animals or fish. Animal fat or tallow was usually used to make candles and plant and fish oil could be used in lamps. (See the 'Romans' section in Homes for an example of oil lamp powered by olive oil.)
Oil lamps and candles coexisted as forms of lighting for centuries. Both suffered from similar problems of creating unpleasant smells, smoke and having a flame that was difficult to control.
Ami Argand, a Swiss inventor, produced a lamp in 1782-4 that revolutionised lighting. The special feature of his lamp was the wider, flat wick that he bent around to form a tube. This hollow wick was superior to earlier versions as it drew air up toward the flame and therefore made combustion
more efficient. The flame would burn brighter. Plus, the glass chimney created an upward draft, which further aerated the flame.
In early versions of the lamp, colza, carcel or rapeseed oil was used. This oil is too heavy to be drawn up the wick by capillary
action alone. Therefore the carcel lamp had a clockwork pump to force the oil up the wick. The Moderator lamp, patented in 1836, used a spring mechanism to achieve the same effect. The only mechanism in the paraffin
lamp is the rack and pinion - a metal tube carrying the wick that can be raised up and down by the metal pin on the side.
Discovered in the oil fields of Pennsylvania in 1860s, paraffin oil was then introduced into Britain. It heralded another minor revolution in lamp design for a number of reasons:
It was much lighter than previous oils and could move up the wick by capillary action alone. Therefore, the later lamps like the one shown here did not need a mechanism to force the oil up the wick.
It was cleaner, more stable and odourless.
It was more affordable.
However, poorer families still had to rely on candles for the majority of their lighting needs.
Oil lamps were eventually replaced by gas lighting. Gas lighting was first demonstrated in 1792 and gas lamps and fittings widely used by the end of the 19th century. Gas was itself eventually replaced by electricity, the form of power that we rely on today for most of our lighting.
Oil lamps continue to be used for decorative purposes in homes today.