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Lighting Madison

Thomas Edison is rightfully saluted as a creative genius who brought electric lights and other modern wonders to the world. But a look through the Madison Historical Society’s examples of early lighting devices (beyond candles) is proof that ingenuity was plentiful, long before Edison invented the incandescent light bulb.

The rush light, one of our simplest designs, holds a piece of rush — a long, grass-like leaf — that has been dried and then dipped in rendered animal fat. The lamp dates from the 1700s and is crudely made of wrought iron with a roughly cut block of wood as its base. The light it provided was poor, and the rush would likely have burned for only five minutes or so. Even so, it is clever: The rush is held between two “fingers” that are hinged to a candlestick that acts as a counterweight to firmly hold the rush. Rush lights were common among the poorest people in England in the 1600s and 1700s, but were not so common here in the Colonies. Ours appears to be locally wrought, which is rarer still.

Perhaps a step up from the rush light is the Betty lamp. Designed to hang on a wall or from a ceiling, it burns rendered animal fat or vegetable oil. Its wick stands in a shallow bowl, and many examples include a lid. Common everywhere from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century, our example is missing its lid, but it is clearly the epitome of simplicity. Depending on the fuel used, it was bright — about two candles’ worth of illumination — but it was also smoky and often smelled of the fuel being burned. Worse, it was messy: Its wick often dripped unburned oil to the surfaces below.

Beginning in the 1690s when whale oil was plentiful and cheap, early whale-oil lamps offered better lighting for people of modest means. Whale oil was stinky, unfortunately, but it offered a bright, white light. Because it was thicker than other lamp fuels, its use required a new sort of wick mounting that older lamps did not have.

Benjamin Franklin came up with a design to capture some of the lamp heat to warm both the wick and the oil reservoir so the thinning fluid would climb up the wick and burn brightly. Franklin Burner whale-oil lamps thus have two wicks mounted closely in pairs that are encased in short metal tubes attached to a metal cap or lid. This design helps capture heat that makes the whale oil less viscous.

By the time the whaling industry peaked in 1845, 18 million gallons of whale oil had been harvested and prices had skyrocketed. A gallon of whale oil sold for about $77 per gallon in today’s money. This price was much too dear for common use, and, of course, was devastating for the whales. When kerosene was developed and sold for far-lower prices, it quickly displaced whale oil and other illuminating fluids. The society has two fine examples of pewter whale-oil lamps from these bygone days. The one shown here has caps to put over the wicks to prevent evaporation of the costly fuel when not in use.

At the society’s annual Antiques Fair in August, I saw a nice piece of lighting ingenuity that even Edison could appreciate. Imagine, as inexpensive kerosene lamps became plentiful after the Civil War, how many obsolete candlesticks there must have been. One enterprising manufacturer figured out a way for frugal New Englanders to use their old candlesticks and save money on a foreshortened kerosene lamp. Instead of having a bulky stand attached to its reservoir, this lamp has a plug that fits right into the old candlestick. Voilà!

So geniuses like Edison, Bell, Gates and Musk haven’t cornered ingenuity — there’s always been plenty to go around!