Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Combustion Lamp

  • Wout van Bommel
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_121



Lamps that produce light as a result of an exothermic reaction between the vapor of a solid, liquid, or gaseous fuel, consisting of hydrocarbons and oxygen.

Types of Combustion Lamps

Torches, oil lamps, candles, and gas lamps all are combustion types of lamps. The light comes from the flame that is the result of a reaction between oxygen and the vapor of a solid fuel in the case of candles, of a liquid fuel in the case of oil lamps, and of a gaseous fuel in the case of gas lamps. A spark is needed for starting the reaction.

Working Principle

In all combustion types of lamps, after a spark has initiated the process, the combustion reaction takes place between the gaseous state of hydrocarbons of the fuel and oxygen from the air. The products of the reaction are carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor (H2O), heat, and light in the form of a flame. In oil lamps and candles, the wick draws, by its capillary action, the fuel to the flame against the force of gravity. It is not the liquid part of that fuel that takes part in the combustion reaction but the evaporated fuel around the wick. With all combustion lamps, carbon particles of high temperature (soot), resulting from incomplete combustion, are brought to incandescence and contribute to the total light radiation. The blue light at the bottom of the wick (Fig. 1) is the result of the combustion reaction, the yellowish part of the flame is the result of incandescent light from the carbon particles.
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 1

Flame of a candle

The combustion reaction vitiates the atmosphere by consuming oxygen and returning carbon dioxide (CO2). Non-complete combustion leads to the emission of harmful gasses like carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur oxides (SOx), and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Oil Lamps

Oil lamps represent the oldest form of artificial light. Scraped-out stone oil reservoirs (Fig. 2) with a wick have been in use for lighting purposes since prehistoric times some 20,000 years ago [1, 2]. The basic conception of oil lamps has remained unchanged although the materials used and the type of construction have been advanced quite a bit. The Dutchman Jan van der Heyden, for example, developed in 1663 a closed oil reservoir for street lanterns [3]. He not only made a detailed description of the production process of the oil lamp and lantern but also of the set of maintenance material the lamp lighters crew needed (Fig. 3).
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 2

Stone oil lamp found in Lascaux, France, 17000 BC (Photograph: Sémhur: Creative Commons 3.0 unported)

Combustion Lamp, Fig. 3

Maintenance set for a lamp lighter of oil street lighting installations around the end of the seventeenth century (Drawing van der Heijden, 1663 [3])

The industrial revolution some 200–250 years ago asked for artificial lighting in industrial premises, and in that period a boom in new developments in the technology of oil lamps is seen, followed by developments of completely new lighting products, such as gas lighting and later electrical lighting. Until the end of the nineteenth century, oil lamps have been in general use, especially for domestic lighting.

Materials and Construction

The Oil

Vegetal or animal oil, rich in carbon, is used. The type was dependent on the availability in the actual region. In warm areas vegetal oil was made from olives, coconuts, and palms and in more moderate climate regions, from colza, linseeds, and rapeseeds. Animal oil was obtained from fish, whale, or domestic animals. Especially sperm whales were hunted and slaughtered for oil obtained from their head cavities. Around 1850 kerosene (also referred to as paraffin oil) was produced from crude oil (also referred to as petroleum) through a refining distillation process. Quickly it became the standard fuel for oil lamps which became known under the names of paraffin, kerosene, or petroleum lamps.

The Wick

In the early oil lamps days, the wick was made from bark, moss, or plant fibers that were twisted together. Later cotton was usually used for wicks. Some oil lamps had multiple wicks, up to 16 in certain Greek and Roman types. Around 1780, experiments with the shape of the wick resulted in a burner that consisted of two concentric tubes between which a tubular wick is located (Fig. 4). Through the open central tube, air is drawn so that the combustion is improved and consequently the light output as well (equally to some ten candles) while reducing smoke and smell. This oil lamp type is named, after its Swiss inventor, the Argand lamp. A further improvement of this type constituted of a glass chimney placed over the flame that increased the upward air draft through the hollow tube (see again Fig. 4).
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 4

Argand oil burner with tubular wick inside a hollow cylinder equipped with a glass chimney [4]

The Fuel Reservoir or Lantern

Originally the fuel reservoir was a simple open tray made out of stone, seashell, or earthenware in which the wick was free-floating or laid in a groove in the rim of the tray. Later the reservoir was provided with a nozzle or spout through which the wick was led. Sometimes underneath the spout a gutter was mounted to catch spilled oil to avoid pollution and for reuse (Fig. 5).
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 5

Brass spout oil lamp with gutter to catch spilled oil

The material used for the reservoir becomes gradually more advanced: brass, copper, silver, pewter, glass, or porcelain. The reservoirs made out of these materials are closed usually with a lid, although with some versions filling of the reservoir had to be done via the spout. Around 1,800 double-reservoir oil lamps came into use on the initiative of, again, Argand who earlier introduced the double concentric tube burner. These lamps had the advantage that the supply of oil to the wick was relatively constant from a small reservoir that continuously was filled by the force of gravity by a secondary larger reservoir fitted somewhat higher (Fig. 6).
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 6

Double-reservoir oil lamp

The Carcel lamp had a clockwork that operated a pump to raise the oil to the wick. The light output of the Carcel lamp was so constant that its horizontal intensity was for some time used as the unit of intensity. That one Carcel equals approximately 9.8 cd illustrates the high light output of the Carcel lamp relative to that of a candle. The less complicated “moderator lamp” with a spring-loaded piston to pressure-feed the burner became popular for general lighting purposes. The last improvement in oil lamps dates from around 1900 and in fact comes from a technology then already in use for gas lamps. It combines the use of a gas mantle (see a further section “gas lamps”) with a hand pump that pressurizes the fuel liquid to force it into the burner for better combustion where its flame brings the mantle to incandescence. The resulting light is brighter and has a cooler color. These types of lamps are still produced today for emergency lighting purposes and for outdoor use (Fig. 7).
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 7

Modern, double-mantle, pressurized kerosene lantern


Simple oil lamps have a lumen output of about 10 lumen and a luminous efficacy (based on heat release) of some 0.1 lm/W [5, 6]. The mixture of light from incomplete combustion and incandescence of carbon particles results in a correlated color temperature of approximately 2,000 K [7].

Argand and moderator type of oil lamps have a lumen output in the range of 50–200 lumen (comparable to 5–25 W incandescent lamp) with an efficacy of 0.1–0.3 lm/W.

Oil lamps equipped with a gas mantle may raise the lumen output to more than 500 lumen with an efficacy of 0.5–1 lm/W (more than 1.5 lm/W for the pressurized types). The correlated color temperature increases to some 2,700 K.


Candles came in use much later than oil lamps. Spillage of oil and the associated risk of fire have always been a problem with oil lamps. With the invention of the candle made of non-fluid material, the spillage problem was solved albeit not the risk for fire. The candle was less fragile than the oil lamp and therefore more easily portable. The Romans, from the time of the birth of Christ onwards, have been responsible for the dissemination of the candle throughout Europe and the Middle East [1]. Today candles are mainly used for devotion and for ambience lighting. Annual retail sales in the USA of candles, today, exceed five billion pieces (calculated based on [5]).

Materials and Construction

The Candle Substance

The first candles were made of hard animal fat (tallow) or of beeswax. Wax candles were of much better quality but also much more expensive. From the end of the eighteenth century, the use of relatively cheap fat from the spermaceti organ in the head of sperm whales improved the quality of candles. Standardized candles on this basis were used as standards for light intensity: the candlepower (only in 1948 the SI unit candela came into use with a value roughly equal to one candlepower). Around 1830 stearin, obtained by chemical treatment of animal or vegetal fat or oil, was added which increased the melting point and consequently reduced dripping of candle fat. Around 1850 candles became much cheaper because of the use of solid paraffin, a distillation product from crude oil. At that time however gas lighting was already, at many places, the source of lighting.

Candles are produced in some different ways:
  • By dipping the wick repeatedly in molten candle substance

  • By pouring molten candle substance in a glass container

  • By pouring molten candle substance in molts

  • By drawing soft candle substance through a hole (machinally)

The Wick

The first candles had a wick made of a piece of wood, cord, or animal skin. Around 1800 the braided cotton wick was introduced that reduced the disturbing smoke that accompanied burning candles. The braided wick can have a stiff core, originally made of lead and later of zinc, of paper, or today of synthetic fibers. Most wicks are impregnated with wax to facilitate ignition. Early wicks had to be trimmed regularly. Later wicks got such a structure that they bend and their residues dip into the molten fuel and are completely consumed so that trimming is not needed.

The Lantern

To reduce the risk of fire but especially to enable the use of candles outside, candles were used in lanterns made of perforated metal sheet or with windows of animal horn or glass. Only from the eighteenth century onwards candle lanterns sometimes were equipped with mirrors or lenses to concentrate the light in certain directions.

Monumental buildings and homes of the rich were lit with luxurious candle chandeliers, sometimes decorated with pieces of cut glass that made the light sparkle. In contrast to oil lamps, candles were only for a very limited period used for street lighting.


The light and color properties of the candle are similar to those of simple oil lamps. The lumen output of a candle flame is approximately 10 lm and its luminous efficacy 0.1 lm/W [5, 6]. The correlated color temperature is around 1,900 K [7].

Gas Lamps

Oil lamps and candles are light sources where the energy or fuel is stored in the lamp itself. Gas lamps were the first lamps where the energy is distributed to the lamps from a central energy depot at a centralized remote location. The challenge was not only to develop the lamp itself but also the development of town-sized gas production and distribution systems. In 1785 demonstrated the Dutch Jan Pieter Mickelers the use of coal gas to produce light by lighting his lecture room at the university of Leuven with gaslight. The first to make a public demonstration of gas lighting was the Scot William Murdoch when he in 1802 installed a gas pipe network with gas burners for the lighting of the facades of a range of buildings of James Watt’s Soho factory in Birmingham [1, 2, 6]. Oil and candle lighting was quickly replaced by gas lighting, first in street lighting and industrial premises, quickly followed in domestic areas of the rich. In 1875 the new Paris opera got some 45 km of gas pipe with 960 gas lights connected to it.

With the introduction of electric incandescent lamps in 1880, some 75 years after the first use of gas lighting, the use of gas lighting decreased quickly. Even today however, in some cities in the Western world, gas lighting for street lighting is still in use. The city of Berlin, for example, uses some 40,000 gas lanterns.

Materials and Construction

The Gas

Gas for lighting was sometimes produced by heating animal fats or vegetal oil but mostly by heating coal. When the latter is done in an air-free atmosphere, in cast iron retorts, the percentage of methane in the gas is higher, resulting in a better combustion and therefore in more light. After its original application, this type of gas was named “illuminating gas.” Illuminating gas produces whiter light than the blue light of natural gas (only after the invention of the gas mantle – see next section – also natural gas could be used for gas lights). The gas was stored in huge gas storage tanks or gasometers, in some cities preserved as historic landmarks.

A special kind of gas was used for carbide gas lamps on bicycles and early automobiles: acetylene gas obtained by dripping water from a small reservoir in another reservoir under it that contains calcium carbide (Fig. 8).
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 8

Bicycle carbide lantern working on acetylene gas

The Burner

Open Flame Burner

The first burners, so-called open flame burners, were simply a hole or a series of holes at the end of a pipe. The double concentric tube burner with glass chimney, as used since the end of the eighteenth century by Argand for his oil burners, was often used for open flame gas burners as well. It was realized that the higher the temperature of the flame, the larger the lumen output of the flame would be. In 1858 William Sugg therefore introduced burners made from non-heat-conducting steatite that became hotter than heat-conducting metal burners.

Gas Mantle
Already in 1825 it was known that by putting solid material into the flame, this material could be brought to incandescence. In this way both the light output and color of the flame could be influenced. A piece of lime from limestone brought into the flame resulted in an extremely intense and compact light source that was used as spotlight in theaters (Fig. 9). The expression “in the limelight” originates from this.
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 9

From top to bottom: lime light gas burner with piece of limestone, box with limestones, theater spotlight projector in which the lime light gas burner is fitted (Photographs: Stage Lighting Museum, Israel, creator Dan Redler)

In 1885 the Austrian Carl Auer von Welsbach succeeded in using a knitted mantle of solid material around the gas flame (Fig. 10). The material consists of a pear-shaped net of fabric impregnated with the nitrates of the rare-earth metals thorium and cerium. After drying, the fabric is burned off and what remains is a fragile, inflammable structure: the gas mantle existing of the oxides of thorium and cerium that is brought to incandescence in the gas burner. Because of its fragility the mantle has to be replaced regularly.
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 10

Gas mantle

The gas mantle improved both the light output and efficacy of gas lamps considerably because thorium and cerium oxides produce more light in the visible spectrum range than a black body at the same temperature does (selective radiation). The gas mantle invention has stretched the actual use of gas lighting well into the era of the first 50 years of electrical lighting.

Regenerative Burners

Around 1880 the so-called regenerative gas light systems further improved the efficiency of gas lamp systems. The heated air produced by the flame is guided such that it preheats the incoming air needed for combustion. Often this principle was applied with inverted gas mantle burners in which the heat of the flame is better retained in the mantle.

The Lantern

The design of the early gas lanterns was very much based on the design of oil lanterns of that period. Chandeliers for gas lighting were equipped with pull-chains for switching the gas supply on and off and to control, through the quantity of gas supply, the light output. They also often had thin secondary gas pipes connected to the so-called pilot lights that were always on so as to enable the main gas lights to be ignited without the use of matches (Fig. 11).
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 11

Gas lamp chandelier with gas mantles and with thin secondary gas pipes connected to pilot lights for ease of ignition (Photograph: Pat Cryer, taken at the Museum of Welsh life, Cardiff, Wales)

Lanterns for gas lights with gas mantle always had a glass cover to protect the fragile mantle and to restrict glare. The glass cover, of course, was open at the bottom to permit inlet of air needed for combustion. The top part of the lantern had a ventilation shaft working as chimney (Fig. 12). Most lanterns for use in street lighting and for the lighting of industrial premises had multiple gas mantle burners varying in number from 2 to more than 10.
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 12

Multiple gas mantle street lighting lanterns as in use in 2012 in Dusseldorf, Germany (Photograph: Wout van Bommel)

Ignition Control

In a large part of the nineteenth century, gas street lighting lanterns were ignited each day at dusk by a patrolling lamp lighter (Fig. 13). With a stick on which a torch was fitted, he opened a trap door in the bottom of the lantern, opened the gas valve with a hook on the stick, and ignited the flame with the torch.
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 13

Lamplighter (Photograph: Klearchos Kapoutsis, Foter)

Later, gas lanterns had for remote ignition a pilot lamp connected through a bypass to the main gas pipe. Gas supply was remotely controlled by gas valves actuated by gas pressure or by a mechanical clockwork built into the lantern. From 1900 onwards remote gas igniters came on the market which did not need a pilot light. A platinum sponge, existing of a porous mass of finely divided platinum, initiates a flame by catalytically combining oxygen with hydrogen from the gas when the gas valve is opened. Later, also battery-operated remote igniters came into use.


A single gas burner without mantle has a lumen output of 10–50 lumen with an efficacy of 0.2–0.5 lm/W [5, 6]. The spectrum of radiation depends on the type of gas and the oxygen supply that together determine the quality of the combustion reaction and the soot particles that take part in the incandescence process. Figure 14 shows different colored gas flames resulting from different types of gas and different oxygen supply. Open flame burners on “illuminating” gas have the color of flame as shown on the left: yellowish white light from incomplete combustion and incandescence of soot particles. Modern gas ovens have flames as illustrated on the right: a blue flame from complete combustion, without soot particles taking part in the process. The correlated color temperature of the open burner gas flame, burning on illuminating gas, lays around 2,400 K [8].
Combustion Lamp, Fig. 14

Different colors of gas flame depending on type of gas and oxygen supply. From left to right: more complete combustion (Photograph adapted from: WarX: Creative Commons 3.0 unported)

Gas burners with a gas mantle have per mantle a lumen output of 200–600 lumen (comparable to that of a 25–60 W incandescent lamp) at 1–2 lm/W [5, 6, 7]. It is interesting to compare this luminous efficacy with that of Edison’s first incandescent bulb: 1.4 lm/W. The correlated color temperature is dependent on the composition of the mantle. Typical values are 2,700–2,900 K [8]. The lifetime of a gas mantle was some 50–200 h. Modern gas mantles, as used today in professional street lighting lanterns, have a life of up to 4,000 h.

The effect of the mains pressure on the performance of gas lamps was much less than the effect of mains voltage on the performance of most electric lamps. From the last quarter of the nineteenth century, most gas lanterns are equipped with a small pressure governor that keeps the outlet pressure within acceptable limits.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.NuenenNetherlands