From burning cigarettes and cigars to candles and campfires, lighters have been used in one form or another to bring light to our lives for centuries. In cartoons, campfires are started by rubbing two sticks together, but that’s not exactly accurate. While it’s safe to say that we didn’t go from gunpowder to Zippos overnight, there are several notable iterations over the history of the lighter that has brought us to where we are today.
The Early Years
The original lighters were converted firearms that utilized gunpowder as the lighting mechanism. In 1823, German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner invented what is often considered to be the first lighter. It worked by passing hydrogen gas over a metal catalyst, causing a chemical reaction that created heat and light. Unfortunately for Döbereiner, his lighter, known as Döbereiner's Lamp, was large, hard to use, and fairly dangerous, leading it to only be produced in limited quantities during its existence.
In 1903, Carl Auer von Welsbach patented ferrocerium, which is often confused with flint. Ferrocerium produces a spark when scratched, which in turn lights the fuel contained within the lighter, making the creation of modern lighters possible.
Between 1910 and 1932, companies and individuals alike created and modified their own versions of a lighter using Welsbach’s invention. During World War II, soldiers added the use of a cap with holes in it to surround the flame, making it easier to use when exposed to windy conditions. In 1932, George Grant Blaisdell founded Zippo lighters. Touted for its lifetime warranty and wind-proof design, Zippo is still a popular option on the market for consumers today.
Although Zippo and most other companies originally utilized naphtha as a fuel source, there was a change in the 1950s with the popularity of butane dominating over naphtha due to its controllable flame and a reduction in odor. The switch to butane also led to the creation of the piezoelectric spark, which replaced the use of ferrocerium in many lighters.
Lighters that utilize naphtha did so by using a cloth wick that was threaded through the top of the lighter and into the body of the lighter. A top that swings open and closed prevented the naphtha from leaking or evaporating and was also used to extinguish the flame. Butane lighters, on the other hand, had a valve that controlled the flow of butane gas through the lighter. The spark is created by either striking a piece of metal against the ferrocerium, or by pushing a button that creates an electric arc through a piezo ignition.
Naphtha is an incredibly flammable material, and its vapor begins to escape as soon as the top of the lighter is opened. Butane lighters, however, combine the striking action with a valve that opens to release the gas, causing the spark to ignite. The flame is lit until the lid is either closed, as with the naphtha lighter, or until the button is released, with the butane lighter.
Types of Lighters
Although we’ve covered the types of ignition materials and fuels that were typically used in historical lighters, as technology has grown, so have the different styles and types of lighters. From the age-old Zippo to the BIC, there are a few notable lighter options you should know.
As mentioned earlier, Zippo was founded in 1932 by George Grant Blaisdell. For many who smoke, and even those who don’t, the popularity of Zippo lighters has remained steadfast throughout history. They’re popular for a few reasons, but at the top of the list are the lifetime warranty, custom design options, and the fact that they’re just pretty neat looking. They’re also refillable, which helps make them a keepsake rather than something that you can just use and replace on a whim. Some of the downsides of a Zippo lighter are that they are a bit heavier than other options, and without frequent use, the fuel tends to evaporate. Still, they’re a fan favorite and we can’t argue with that! If you want to check out the different designs, visit LighterUSA’s website here.
If you’re looking to put a flame to a campfire, a gas stove, or a grill, you should choose a utility lighter. They’re great for hard-to-reach places because they come in a flex neck option, giving people the ability to light their favorite candle or start a grill without having to say a prayer that they’re not going to burn off their fingers. They also come in refillable options, such as the Zippo Utility Flex Neck Black Lighter.
Taking a step back in the history books, you’ll find table lighters. A stationary flame marketed for cigarette or cigar smokers, a table lighter was designed to be displayed in the home, in hotel lobbies, or in restaurants and bars. Most table lighters were made out of metal, such as silver, brass, copper, or gold. However, some had more ornate designs and featured bases made of wood, resin, or marble. You could even find them in designs such as animals, vehicles, or company logos. During World War II, table lighters were even designed to look like tanks, bombs, and planes.
Known to everyone who has ever visited a gas station checkout counter, the BIC disposable lighter is like the less-fancy cousin of the Zippo. BIC lighters were launched in 1973 and feature an adjustable flame, giving users up to 3,000 uses. Although they’re disposable, BIC lighters come in nearly every design you can think of. Guy Harvey designs? Check. Donuts? Check. Your favorite sports team? Check.
If you use a lighter on any regular basis, it’s a good idea to find one you like and invest in it. Whether you want a classic, customized Zippo featuring snowcapped mountains on a satin chrome background, a slick Vertigo stealth antique triple flame table lighter, or if a Zippo utility flex neck black lighter is more your style, you can find the best lighter for you by shopping online at LighterUSA. You can also check out some of their favorite products here.