research rabbit hole: historical lamps

As you know, I self-id as a complete and utter history nerd and I regularly get sucked down research rabbit holes. I find that I get stuck on how something would work so fixedly that I can’t move on with the story until I’ve worked it out in my own head. A lot of this doesn’t make it in to the book, because it’s simply not necessary for the plot for everyone else to know how corn was harvested in 1920, or what precise underwear working women wore in the mid-eighteenth century, or, in this particular case, what lanterns someone would have used to explore a cave system in the Himalayas in 1780.

This stuffed me for lighting solutions, because advances in oil lamp technology didn’t actually happen until 1780, with the invention of the Argand Lamp by, wait for it, Aime Argand.

Jones and Edith were therefore left with either a candle lantern or a more primitive oil lantern for their explorations. I have allowed them a few candles brought with them from home. But the lighting in the region was primarily from oil lamps, usually using clarified butter or vegetable oil. So I thought that Jones, being very well prepared, would probably have an oil lantern and a candle in her pocket for emergencies. Oil lanterns can have more than one wick for additional light – this YouTube video is a really worthwhile watch.

After watching that, I made myself a little lamp with olive oil and a bit of cotton string supported out of it with some wire, in a glass jar. It gave enough light to hang out and chat, but not really enough to read by unless you were right next to it. I guess more wicks in the jar would make a difference.

My next project is to take the cream off our fortnightly milk delivery, make butter, clarify the butter and see how I get on with that.

One thing that shouldn’t be underestimated is the very real risk of fire with all of these open light sources. There’s a reason that there were stiff penalties for having an open flame below decks on a ship. Horn lanterns, with scraped thin panels of animal horn to protect the flame, served a double purpose – to protect the flame from being blow out, but to also slow down fire if the lamp was dropped or toppled over.

Don’t try this at home without something close by to extinguish flames if something goes wrong!

 

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