Long considered one of the “seven wonders of the world,” and second only to the great pyramid of Giza in size and grandeur, the Pharos light marking the entrance to the port of Alexandria, Egypt could be seen by ships nearly 100 miles at sea. It was built around 280 BC from stone and masonry rising to a height of nearly 600 feet. One can only marvel that its light source – reflected by a bronze mirror – was a fire which burned 24 hours a day and which was fed by fuel raised by workers and possibly a dumbwaiter from sea level below. And despite great storms and numerous earthquakes, its light shone for 1500 years!
In fact, for 10,000 years of human life on earth, fire of one size or another was the only source of light to penetrate the long hours of darkness. Among my treasured artifacts is a tiny olive oil lamp whose meager glow is a sweet-smelling reminder of those modest light sources described throughout the New Testament, whose wicks needed frequent trimming and whose reservoirs should be kept filled and ready.
The first of my ancestors to come to the New World pioneered Nantucket Island in the early 1600s where he and his sons became prosperous building and outfitting the whaling ships which plied the northern seas to harvest spermaceti and whale oil which became the favored fuel for the young nation’s hundreds of lighthouses and many homes, and which, despite its high price reached a peak of 17 million gallons by 1845. Whale oil was largely replaced as a lamp fuel by a mixture of alcohol and turpentine known as camphene, of which 90 million gallons hit the market by the Civil War year of 1862 and which was half the price of whale oil.
All of this began to change when, in 1846, a Canadian named Alexander Gesner discovered a method for extracting oil from certain kinds of coal which he named kerosene, often referred to at the time as coal oil, or paraffin in England. With the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania, from which it was quickly learned that kerosene could be distilled far more easily, the age of kerosene-fueled lighting and heating seemed here to stay; and in a way it has, since the world’s jet engines today use that very fuel. At the worldwide rate of 5 million barrels per day!
By 1875 coal oil street lamps began to appear in towns across the country and with them a unique but familiar public employee immortalized in song. (I recently pulled from my extensive collection of old LP albums “The Old Lamplighter” recorded in 1946 by Sammy Kaye with Billy Williams doing the vocal, and listening to it carried me back to a soda fountain called The Spot where high school kids gathered each noon to sip a Nehi and drop a nickel or two in the juke box.)
Then on September 4th, 1882 a miracle took place on Pearl Street in Manhattan when the Edison Illuminating Company went on line generating public power sufficient to light 400 lamps in the nearby homes of 85 customers, and by the next year, Roselle, New Jersey would become the first town to be lighted by electricity. In nearby Coytesville, the 150-year old three-story home and former stage coach Inn where I was born would become the first residence to be completely electrified when old wall and ceiling-mounted “gas lights” would receive Edison bulbs and a second life. In many parts of rural America, oil lamps would supply residential lighting until 1955. Some of my fondest boyhood memories involve vacation time spent in an old Victorian home in rural Connecticut where fresh cold water was hand pumped, the outhouse was an apple orchard away, and my job each night was to make sure the lamps were filled with kerosene in each bedroom well ahead of time. For me, it was sheer magic.
In a modern world in which technological progress offers something new and wonderful on a near-daily basis, it is easy to forget that it has been only 132 years since the moment 10,000 years of relative darkness came to an end thanks to Mr. Edison’s Pearl Street “miracle.” In my own home today I confess to taking occasional nostalgic delight in turning off the switches and watching the gentle glow of my collection of kerosene-powered Aladdin lamps push back the cloak of night.
With its round wick and illuminating mantle, the author’s favorite Aladdin lamp represents the ultimate in kerosene-fueled home lighting efficiency. They are still to be found in virtually every Amish home and barn.