A Brief History of the Mantle.


In 1828 the Swedish chemist Johan Berzelius found a way to separate the oxide of thorium from one of the element's salts, although he had no idea of the ultimate widespread use to which his discovery would be put. Several years later, in 1835, William Fox Talbot recorded another crucial discovery, when he found that blotting paper impregnated with calcium chloride left a white ash with a peculiar bright after-glow when burnt. Neither of these discoveries were considered to have any great commercial application at the time, and the first real mantle was still fifty years away. Indoor lighting was still smelly, and was a risky and rather 'dirty'  process relying on an exposed flame to give what was really not a very good light. Many steps were still to be made before these discoveries were applied successfully. Not least, there was a need for a clean and economical fuel oil. Tallow candles made from recovered animal fat were still in use, and as the tasks of workers became more complex the need for better lighting intensified.

In the search for better fuels, it was discovered that the sticky oils associated with coal seams could be altered, and separated into different fractions, some of which made excellent lamp fuel. Paraffin (kerosene) was discovered in 1830 by Reichenback and Christison, working independently of one another. The first plant to produce paraffin fuel oil for lamps was started in 1848 in Derbyshire, England, and the process was patented by Dr James Young two years later. By 1858 Bissell and Drake were searching for oil in North America, and in August 1859, Drake's 69 feet deep well filled up with oil, starting a rush to buy land in the Oil Creek area. Young's oil came from shale, whereas Drake's was naturally occurring oil.

Although Lewes had previously made a platinum iridium mantle, it's high cost and variable reliability meant that it was not a commercial success, and Clamond was probably the first man to design a reliable working mantle, in 1881. He failed, though, to overcome the technical and chemical problems associated with high temperature, and he still could not achieve clean combustion. However, Clamond demonstrated his mantle at London's Crystal Palace exhibition in 1883, and gained a good response. Robert Bunsen was among the first to fully understand the process of efficient combustion, and in order to get the most energy out of the fuel, he had already created a variable air limiter so that a burner could be properly adjusted to burn a variety of gaseous fuels. He won lasting fame for the simple laboratory device, the Bunsen Burner, which has been made in countless numbers since its invention. One of Bunsen's students, Carl Auer von Welsbach, was aware that certain chemical substances would emit an incandescent light when heated, and he understood that the light given by an open flame wick lamp could be greatly enhanced by allowing it to play upon a specially prepared silk mantle. His invention of the first durable working mantle in 1885 was to revolutionise the industrial and domestic lighting scene. By 1893 the mantle was established as a viable device in its own right. Like many pioneers, von Welsbach was a little ahead of his time, and it was several years before the first successful commercial mantle was available in any quantity. Without efficient combustion, the carbon particles which lessened the effectiveness of open flame lamps would soon clog up and spoil the mantle. Von Welsbach's estimate of Thoria and Ceria in a 99 to 1 ratio for good incandescence turned out to be remarkably accurate, and those proportions remained standard for many years afterwards for all kinds of mantles. The two main uses for Thorium in the last century are in stark contrast to each other, they are lamp mantles and nuclear breeder reactors!

All important as the mantle was, it would not perform without an efficient fuel. Europe and North America were both fertile grounds for new ideas and techniques. Among those working on lighting in America were Isaiah Jennings and John Summerfield Hull. Between them, they have extensive patents on file for distilled lamp fluids and volatile fluid lamp improvements, and one of their lamps is still on display in the Henry Ford museum. It is not often we hear from descendants of the lighting pioneers, but Michael Hull has supplied information about his great grandfather that is given in Appendix 1.

Quality fuel, efficient combustion, and the mantle at last came together to produce the worlds brightest portable oil lamp. In 1895, Mueller or (Moeller) took out a patent on the ERA lamp, forerunner of the Famos, Veritas, and Aladdin family of lamps. From this time on the mantle was firmly established as an integral component of indoor gas and oil lighting. All that remained was to add pressure to the system to further improve efficiency of combustion.