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What is a Kerosene Lantern?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 16, 2024
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Kerosene lanterns burn petroleum oil to provide indoor light when electricity is unavailable. Lanterns, sometimes called lamps, largely replaced candles as the main source of interior light when kerosene became an alternative to other kinds of combustible oil. People continue to use kerosene lanterns for camping, ambience, or in case of emergency blackouts.

Kerosene oil has been distilled from petroleum, as is gasoline. It's an alternative to oil from whales, fish, citronella, olives, beeswax, or nuts that people used to make primitive lamps. "Lamp" comes from a Greek word meaning "torch," lampas. Robert Edwin Dietz, as the father of the kerosene lantern, patented his lamp in 1840. It burned an unfamiliar oil to light train tracks criss-crossing the United States. Soon these portable, safe, weatherproof, and inexpensive lanterns were illuminating everything from one-room schoolhouses to police stations. Their fumes were not dangerous and they were less likely than candles to tip over and start a fire.

The parts of a kerosene lantern are the glass globe that surrounds the flame and keeps it steady; the handle, suspended from the body so it doesn't get hot; the wick, a round or flat woven cotton length; the burner, the metal dish holding the wick upright; a lever that controls the height of the wick above the burner; and the fount or reservoir that holds the oil.

A kerosene lantern uses the principles of carburetion and wicking. In the simplest kind of lamp, the dead flame lantern, open vents let in fresh air to allow the oil to burn. Hot air rises and escapes through the top. This basic form of carburetion provides oxygen to mix with the gaseous form of kerosene, since fire needs oxygen to burn. Capillary action works by drawing the kerosene out of the fount to the tip of the wick where the flame heats the oil to a gas and ignites it. Unlike propane lanterns, kerosene lanterns do not use mantles.

A more sophisticated method of carburetion can be found in hot blast or cold blast lanterns. These are tubular forms of the standard lantern, introduced by John Henry Irwin in 1869, to refine the way the vapor of kerosene oil mixes with fresh air to ignite. These lamps have side tubes running between outside air and the reservoir of oil. In cold blast types, fresh, oxygenated air circulates and makes a very bright flame. Hot blast lanterns circulate some fresh and some warmer, oxygen-poor air. This produces a softer flame, but conserves oil.

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Discussion Comments
By chivebasil — On Jul 16, 2011

Me and my family live in Baltimore and we had a huge city wide blackout here a few years ago.

We had just moved into the house and almost everything was packed into cardboard boxes. We had flashlights and candles but no one knew where they were.

Luckily one of the last things we packed was an old kerosene lantern that still had some fluid in it. We broke it out and it lit up immediately. The whole family sat around it all night playing cards and it has become one of the best memories I have of this house.

If it hadn't been for that lantern we would have had a boring and cold night. Because it was there we were able to come together as a family. I will always be grateful in a weird way for that lantern and I don't think I will ever throw it out. maybe one day I will be able to play cards by its light with my grand kids.

By backdraft — On Jul 16, 2011

I have an old kerosene lantern but it needs a wick and I have no idea where to find one. I have been to a few camping stores but none of them have a kerosene lantern wicks that will do the job. It is probably too old fashioned for them to still be making the wicks. I thought of making one myself but I am worried about damaging the kerosene lamp. Does anyone have any ideas about how I can get this lamp working as cheaply and effectively as possible?

By ZsaZsa56 — On Jul 15, 2011

My grandfather used to have a kerosine lantern that had belonged to his grandfather. If it was still around it would be over 100 years old today.

I can remember it because it showed its age. It was like something dug out of a tomb it was so rusty and creaky looking. When I would go to visit my grandparents and my grandfather and I would go out walking at night he would always carry that lantern with him.

I don;t think it had anything to do with tradition. The simple fact was that it still worked and there was no reason to get rid of it. Obviously it was built to last.

It got lost somewhere when my grandparents dies. It probably got sold off in a garage sale or thrown in the trash. Its a shame, it worked so well and I bet it would still work today. It would also be a great reminder of my grandfather lighting up the night as we walked through the woods.

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