The Laureate Lighter - A chronological history of the amazing invention
By Jason Virga, Published 2/21/2006

Today the lighter is so commonly used that most everybody in the world knows what one is. BIC, the largest lighter manufacturer in the world, alone claims to sell almost 1.5 billion lighters per year. Though we take lighters for granted, if you think about it, they are an amazing invention. In any place, at any time--with only the press of a button--combustion is possible! We think the history of lighters is an interesting subject, so here you have it:

Inventor of the lighter - Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner

The lighter was invented in 1816. The first lighter was called "Dobereiner's Lamp" (named after its creator, a German chemist named Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner). But his lighter did not use butane or oil as fuel, it used (the highly explosive) hydrogen. Needless to say his lighter was not very safe, and if invented today, would hardly be ISO9000 material!

Another difference was that these lighters used platinum as the catalyst (used to start the chemical change of fuel to fire) instead of  flint, or a Piezoelectric spark (the Piezo spark is explained later). With platinum being so valuable, you can imagine how this lighter was much a luxury of the time.  Only highly affluent smokers could afford the first lighters, which is why most smokers used matches until much later.

Although it was an amazing invention, Dobereiner's Lamp was not so convenient because it wasn't built for hands to hold. It was a kind of table lighter, like the piece shown in the image to the right. It was considered a status symbol and the prize of a socialite smoker--as it was quite the conversational piece.

Common smokers mostly used matches until the flint lighter became more popular. By 1908, the flint lighter was refined enough (and small enough) to fit inside a pocket. Special flint made specifically for lighters (ferrocerium) went into mass production at this time. Obviously, flint is a fraction of the cost of platinum. Using platinum as a catalyst faded out and flint took its place. This lit the kindling which would light the fire that fueled rise of the lighter.

Dobereiner's Lamp

Early flint lighter

The development of lighters accelerated during World War I. Matches were used by soldiers to find their way in the dark. But the intense initial flare of matches gave away their position too easily, and many lives were lost because of this. Hence, the need for combustion without a great initial flare was born. Inventors started improving the design of lighters and by 1918 when the war ended, they were able to be produced somewhat easier.

By the 1920s, right in the middle of the Art-Deco period, smoking became extremely popular. And, lighters were right there to keep up with the trend. Flint wheel lighters were the first lighters to make a mark. A typical 1920s lighter looked like the image to the left, and was probably carried around in the purse of a positively chic woman!

In the 1920s, lighters were still somewhat of a luxury for smokers. It would be a heavy setback for the average blue collar worker who smoked--kind of like a pool player who would buy his own cue stick. But when the 1930s came along, a man named George G. Blaisdell noticed an awkward Austrian lighter that had room for improvement and acted on it.

He improved the ergonomics of the lighter's case, so it wasn't as awkward to hold. Then he designed a perforated hood for the wick, which kept the lighter's flame windproof! Additionally, he modified the fuel chamber to be more efficient, and added a hinged flip-top lid. And voila! Zippo entered the world of lighters.

Zippo Founder - George G. Blaisdell

Woman smoking

After the emergence of Zippo, other lighter companies started popping up. All the competition caused prices to fall dramatically. Lighters then became a hot novelty and were very collectible. Ronson made their first automatic lighter in the late 1920s but did not gain in popularity, until the rise of Zippo. Dunhill became more aggressive in the production of their lighters. St. Dupont added lighters to their line of products. Also, Colibri began making their first automatic lighters.

See the lovely gentlewoman to your left? She might have that pleased look on her face because her "gasper" (slang word for cigarette in the early 1900s) was lit by a Zippo. Numerous sources claim that the "ding" sound the hinged flip-top makes is irresistible to many women smokers. This is just one of the many fashionable aspects of lighters that made them such a novelty.

The fuel used in most of the lighters in the 1930s was naphtha, an oily liquid that comes from petroleum. The typical logistics of a lighter from this time was as follows: The fuel reservoir at the bottom of the lighter contained a wick immersed in the fuel. The wick led up to the top where a steel/flint ignition system would spark against the fuel-soaked wick and create a constant flame. The spark was made by the flick of a finger to a rotating wheel of flint, which created friction against a small piece of steel.

In the 1930s-40s, a ground-breaking innovation to the lighter emerged. It's hard to say exactly who conceived of the idea, but Ronson starting producing mass-producing lighters that used butane as a fuel, instead of naphtha. There were three main advantages butane had over naphtha: 1) compressed butane gave the ability to control flame intensity 2) the wick no longer need to be replaced 3) the odor of butane was not as pungent as that of naphtha. To the right is one of the first flint butane lighters made by Ronson.

Antique Ronson advertisement

Early butane lighter

When butane lighters first came into the market, flint was still used as the ignition system. Because lighter flints inevitably need to be replaced due to wear by friction, it was bothersome to a smoker to have to replace it every once in a while. Lighter manufacturers sought after a more advanced ignition system, to make lighters further appealing...

A technology also started to rapidly develop after the first World War--Piezoelectricity. Like the lighter, Piezoelectricity was invented in the early 1800s, but the full potential of it was only first realized in 1917, by French scientists. They created a device that ultrasonically detected submarines, which used Piezoelectricity to convert one type of energy to another. Ronson used the same Piezoelectric effect used in this machine, to create an igniter for lighters that transforms energy (of pressurized force of quartz crystals) into an electric spark.

Since the late 1950s, when the Piezoelectric spark was introduced, lighters have been used by almost all smokers. Now, there are more lighter manufacturers than ever. There are also many different flame types. Aside from a natural flame, there are now torch lighters (that produce ultra hot and pin-pointed flames), windproof lighters, and even multi-flame lighters.

Today smokers might choose a different flame type as a matter of preference or because of what they're smoking (pipes or cigars). Cigar smokers usually use torch lighters and pipe smokers would probably prefer a natural flame lighter. For more information on flame types, see our FAQ page. At any rate, the lighter has left a marvelous evolutional trail, and we're happy to be a part of it. Enjoy!

Flame types