Some Observations on Non-Electric Lighting, by Ron B.

I began work in Toronto on August 1, 2003.  The lights went out three weeks later.  The entire Northeast was dark for several days.

The company had provided us with three months of free housing.  By my standards it was quite posh ¾ pool privileges, chandeliers, weekly maid service. 

But we knew nobody, had little food in the cupboard, and no local currency.  (Then again the cash registers didn’t work anyway.)  When the sun went down it got dark and stayed dark.  We had no light of any kind.  Granted, the two huge candlesticks on the mantle were a blessing, though some candles for them would have been nice.

Afterwards, my wife confessed how close she had been to begging:  “Let’s go home.  I’m scared.  I don’t care about the job.  I don’t care about the money.  Let’s get the hell out of here.” 

Fear of the dark is both primitive and powerful.

I later retired and began work on a book entitled:  No Lights?  No Batteries?  No Problem.  A Handbook of Non-Electric Lighting.  After three years of research and hundreds of “science experiments,” I submitted a book proposal to a publisher.

They kept my chapters three months and sent me a very nice rejection letter.  It began to dawn on me (at age 71) that there were not enough months left in my life to locate a publisher.  No doubt I’ll self-publish electronically at some point but in the meantime I’d like to share some of my findings.  I wish I’d known this stuff myself in 2003.

Everything that burns consumes oxygen.  So be sure to crack a window and provide ventilation. 

Also, everything that burns gives off carbon monoxide: your gas range, your KeroSun heater with catalytic converter, your gas clothes dryer, your boudoir incense, your wood stove, your kerosene lamp, your fireplace, the candles on your birthday cake.

As a check to see that it’s working, the directions for my carbon monoxide detector suggest bringing a stick of burning incense close to the detector.  Wow!  The detector screams!  A very impressive demo!

Vegetable oil lamps are less expensive than candles to burn.  One tablespoon of vegetable oil will produce a candle-sized flame for two hours.  Cooking oil has been burned in lamps since Biblical times.       

You can use a tuna fish can to hold the oil but a clear glass container allows more light to escape.  It should be Pyrex; a wine glass is the perfect shape but will probably break (trust me on this).  You can buy small Pyrex custard dishes at the Salvation Army store for 50¢ each.  They have brand names like Glasbake and Fire-King.

Soak a length of cotton string in the oil and let it dangle over the edge of the bowl.  That’s your wick.  Light the wick with a match.  The flame burns right at the lip of the bowl.

Do not use synthetic material for a wick (polyester, nylon, etc.).  Oil is drawn to the flame by capillary action.  Synthetics melt in the heat of the flame and seal off the capillary action.

The best wick material I’ve found (for heavy, viscous vegetable oil) is a strand from a cotton-string floor mop.  Actually, a whole strand is too much.  Just one of the four plies within the strand will do the job.

String mop-heads can be purchased at the Dollar Store.  For a buck you’ll have a lifetime supply of wicks.  An edge seam from your handkerchief will also work.  Ditto for a strip of your flannel pajamas or flannel shirt or denim from your jeans.  Just nothing synthetic.

You can dangle several wicks over the side of the bowl and light all of them at the same time.  That’s a nice arrangement because, when one of the wicks builds up a big carbon goober on the end, it can be cleaned off by the light of the still-burning wicks.

The string lamp is very safe because vegetable oil is fiendishly difficult to ignite.  If you spill vegetable oil, you’ll create a mess but no fire hazard.  In fact, a string lamp is best extinguished by pushing the burning wick right into the oil.  The flame will go out instantly.  (If you merely blow out the flame, the wick will glow and smolder and stink.)   

TIP:  Put a saucer under your string lamp.  It will drip. 

TIP:  Use the least expensive vegetable oil available.  You’re not going to eat it; you’re going to burn it. So don’t buy olive oil for this purpose.  

TIP:  The generous use of mirrors will enhance your light output.   

The terms “lamp” and “lantern” are almost interchangeable although a lamp is generally used inside whereas a lantern is used outside.  A lantern shields the flame from wind and rain.

A crude but serviceable lantern can be made by pouring a quarter-inch of vegetable oil in the bottom of Pyrex measuring cup or a pot from your Mr. Coffee.  (A cup or jar made from ordinary glass will break for sure using this design, no “maybe” about it.) 

Wad up a 2″ x 2″ square of paper, light the paper with a match, and drop the burning clump into the oil.  Voila!  A lantern.  The flame is down inside the container, shielded from the wind.  The paper serves as a wick.  And a wide range of paper can be used ¾ paper toweling, newspaper, bond paper, paper bag.

The bottom becomes very hot.  You’ll need a trivet under it.  In the case of a measuring cup, the handle becomes very hot.  You will need a potholder or gloves to carry it.  You cannot regulate the flame size so the lantern will smoke, making it suitable for outdoors use only.  After half an hour the glass will become smoked up. 

On the plus side, it will light your way to the privy and back at midnight. And, like the string lamp, should you spill this lantern, the vegetable oil will create a mess but the fire hazard is very small.

This idea came from a booklet entitled Light by Dawn Russell. 

You’ll need:
(1) A candle (i.e. a taper, not a tea candle).
(2) A 3-pound coffee can (well . . . today it’s 2½ lbs.)  And make it a metal can, if you please.  Not plastic and not paper sprayed with an aluminum coating.
(3) A wire coat hanger (for a handle).

We’ll operate the flashlight with the can on its side, not eye-to-the-sky.   What served as the can’s bottom when it held coffee becomes the back wall of the flashlight.     

In use, the candle is vertical while the can is horizontal.  The top of the candle sticks up through (what has become) the floor of the flashlight.  The flame is at the top of the candle and inside the can.  The candle’s bottom end protrudes down through the floor and hangs under the flashlight.  Hence you can’t set the flashlight down; it must be carried or hung on a peg. 

NOTE:  In case you can’t visualize it from my description, the following link shows a picture of the candle flashlight as well as the string lamp and the vegetable oil lantern:

To build the flashlight, first remove the top of the coffee can (and the coffee, too, may I add).  Then cut an X in the can wall, midway between the two ends.  Each arm of the X should be an inch long.  Push a candle partway through the X and into the can.  The points of the X become spurs holding the candle in place. 

To cut the X, first punch a hole through the can wall with a nail and hammer.  Then cut the metal with a utility knife.  (Cans aren’t very thick these days.)  Use a sawing motion.  Some strength is required.

A piece of wire coat hanger forms a handle.  Punch two holes in the top of the flashlight (the “top” being the roof over the flame).  One of the holes is at the rear of the flashlight; the other in the front. 

Push the wire into one of the holes (from the outside) and, with pliers, crimp the end of the wire inside the flashlight to form a foot that will not pull back through the hole.  Bend the wire as necessary and repeat the process on the second hole.

A 2½ lb. coffee can is 6″ in diameter.  I allow 4″ of headspace between the top of the candle and the flashlight’s ceiling.  It works well.

There is not much to be said about [traditional wick] kerosene lamps (the $6 variety from Dollar General).  They are simple, reliable, and reasonably safe.  And smelly.  They give light equivalent to a 7½-watt nightlight.  Ditto for Dietz-type barn lanterns.  If you want more light than that (ignoring antiques such as Rayos), you’ll have to enter the world of pressure lanterns.

There’s one exception, the Kosmos.  It’s made in Europe, burns kerosene, and outputs light in the 15-watt range.  But it costs $100.  Before you buy, may I suggest a cost-benefit comparison to a propane pressure lamp…

Lamps that run on small cylinders of propane represent one type of pressure lantern.  The cylinders are pre-filled with fuel in contrast to liquid-fuel lanterns that are messy to fill. 

A single-mantle propane lamp (Century brand) is $20 at Wal-Mart.  It will produce light equivalent to a 40-watt light bulb.  One cylinder of fuel ($4) will last 12 hours.  That’s a run rate of 33¢ an hour which is a fairly steep.  But because no filling is required (and thus no spills) and because there is no smell while burning, propane lamps have largely replaced liquid-fuel lanterns within the camping community. 

Note that the cylinders used in camping lanterns, and the skinnier cylinders used for Bernz-O-Matic soldering torches, and the 20 lb. cylinders used on barbeque grills, and the 200 lb. cylinder behind the house for the kitchen stove, all contain propane.  And it’s all the same stuff, C3H8.  You can buy adaptors to hook up your little camping lantern to a bigger tank.

Liquid-fuel lanterns are less expensive to operate than propane.  Unfortunately, pressure lamps that run on white gas belong to granddad’s era and not many people today understand the technology.  A little bit of homework, though, will help ensure your family’s safety.  So let’s have at it.

Oil refining is a two-stage affair.  First, distillation breaks crude oil into five major fractions:  refinery gases, gasoline, kerosene, diesel oil, and residues.

After fractional distillation comes cracking.  The world’s thirst for gasoline is bigger than fractional distillation can satisfy.  Cracking breaks down heavy oil into lighter products.

White gas is (and was) pure gasoline with no additives.  It is clear as water and 50 octane.  The Model “T” Ford, with its 4.5:1 compression ratio, ran fine on white gas.  So did Coleman lanterns.

Better auto performance required higher compression engines.  Higher compression required higher-octane gas.  Tetra-ethyl lead was added to white gas to increase its octane rating.  A bit of red dye was also added so that consumers didn’t accidentally pump the old-fashioned 50-octane stuff, now called white, into their cars. 

White gas at the pump became hard to find but Coleman lanterns still needed it.  Coleman began selling white gas branded as “Coleman fuel.”

Leaded gas is no more.  It poisoned people and was phased out 1975-1995.  But “unleaded” does not mean “no additives.”  Unleaded means different additives.  No additives would put you back to 50 octane.

Today, Coleman sells “Dual Fuel” lanterns that are billed as running on either Coleman fuel or unleaded automobile gas. 

I was surprised to discover that my new Coleman Dual Fuel 285 produced light equivalent to a 150-watt light bulb on Coleman fuel but only equivalent to 100 watts on automobile gas. 

Would auto gas plug the lantern’s generator (as some claimed)?  I decided to find out.

Day 1.  The 285 started out (on auto gas) at 100 watts.  I kept it pumped up hard.  Eight hours later it had faded to 40 watts.  At nine hours it was almost empty.

Day 2.  It started out at 100 watts.  Six hours later it was 40 watts.  I shut it down at nine hours.

Day 3.  It started out at 100 watts.  Three hours later it was 40 watts.  I shut it down at nine hours.

Day 4.  It started out at 40 watts.  Total hours at 100 watts (actually, 40 watts or more) were seventeen.

Day 5.  I switched back to white gas.  Light output was 75 watts, half of what it had been prior to running automobile gas.  Auto gas had clogged the lantern’s generator.  A new generator was $11.49 plus postage:

Aside.  The term generator might sound complicated but a “steam jenny” was a generator.  Jenny was slang for generator.  A steam jenny generated steam.  A teakettle is a steam jenny.

And the generator for a Coleman lantern is little more than a length of brass tubing.  Liquid fuel enters one end.  A check valve stops it from reversing direction.  Heat is applied to the outside of the tube.  The liquid inside the tube turns to a gas.  Gas (in the “solid-liquid-gas” sense of things) has been generated from a liquid.

Question.  Will older Coleman lanterns, engineered for white gas, run on unleaded automobile gas?  Yes.  Safely?  Yes.  Will automobile gas slowly clog the lantern’s generator?  Yes.  Did I personally test it?  Yes.  Why didn’t they advertise the old lanterns as “dual-fuel”? 

Why?  Because the auto gas of that era contained lead.  Not good for baby’s little brain.

An “orphan” is a lamp for which you cannot find spare parts.  An otherwise perfect lamp without the necessary wick or mantle or pump leather is effectively junk.  And when, exactly, is that critical part going to fail?  When the water’s five feet high and risin’.  It’s a law of nature.

[With the exception of Diesel fuel,] kerosene is the least expensive liquid fuel ($3.75 a gallon versus $10.50 for Coleman fuel).  If you want a pressure lantern that runs on kero, your choices are a used Coleman 237, a used Coleman 639, a new Coleman 214, or a new Coleman 639C.  You can find these lanterns on eBay and spare parts at Coleman.  Everything else in the Coleman kerosene lineup is an orphan.

(Petromax is a non-Coleman lantern that burns kerosene and for which spare parts are available.)

Older Colemans that run on white gas and for which spare parts are readily available include the 220, the 228, and the 200A.  Other older Colemans are orphans.

Other older brands (J.C. Higgins and Ted Williams from Sears; Hawthorne and Western Field from Wards; Thermos; KampLite; Diamond; etc., etc., etc.) are orphans. 

Even new lanterns can be orphans.  Today, NorthStar is Coleman’s top-of-the-line lantern but requires a unique pleated, tubular mantle.  No other lantern has it or can use it ¾ domestic or foreign, new, used, or antique.  I own several lanterns but, because of its unique orphan mantle, not a NorthStar.

This is a hot-button topic.

Pressure lanterns require mantles.  Mantles are made of cloth coated with a rare earth that glows in the heat of the flame and produces more light than the flame itself.

Thorium was the rare earth used in lamp mantles from the 1890s to the 1990s.  Thorium, however, is slightly radioactive.  Thorium has been largely replaced with yttrium, another rare earth that is not radioactive.  The new yttrium mantles are not as bright as the old thorium mantles. 

So how radioactive is radioactive?

A “Roentgen equivalent man” (abbreviated rem) is a measure of radiation.  A millirem (abbreviated mrem) = 1/1000 rem.  Background radiation is about one mrem per day in most parts of the world.

One dental X-ray is equivalent to 0.5 mrem.  One mammogram is equivalent to 300 mrem.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that “avid campers” (making 26 two-day camping trips per year, using Coleman-type lanterns with thorium mantles) receive 0.05 to 6 mrem per year.

Let’s express the foregoing in more familiar units, Dollars: Background radiation is $1 per day.  A dental X-ray is 50¢.  A mammogram is $300.  An “avid camper” would receive between 5¢ and $6 per year from thorium mantles.

Today’s Coleman mantles are the #21 and the #11.  They replaced the 21A Silk-Lite and the #1111 respectively (which were the old thorium mantles). 

The #21 mantle is used on Coleman’s new Dual Fuel lanterns as well as Coleman’s older gas models (220, 228, 200A) as well the Coleman 214 (kerosene).  The #11 mantles are used on Coleman’s larger kerosene lanterns (237, 639, 639C).

Personally, I use the #21 mantle on my Petromax 150CP (i.e. 150 candlepower) and the #11 mantle on my 500CP Petromax.  Petromax is a brand of lantern to be discussed next. 

I’ve given up on Petromax-brand mantles because they are too fragile.  With all the finesse I can muster, I usually break them when starting the lantern.  At $2 apiece, it’s an expensive game.  Fortunately, however, Coleman mantles work fine on a Petromax lantern.  As a consequence, I use only Coleman mantles on my Petromaxes.

I used to have a friend at work who pulled into the parking lot each day in his clanking Volkswagen diesel.  He would get out, shaking his head.  “When you go to the dealer, they brag about German engineering.  They neglect to mention that it’s built in Mexico.”

Petromax lanterns are like that. 

The Petromax was a German, WWI-era lantern.  Its patents have long since expired so it is freely copied by everyone.  The Petromax trademark is another story.  The original trademark lapsed and was reregistered by other sellers.  In the USA, BriteLyt in Florida currently owns it.  Other countries, other owners.

In the USA, Coleman is the big name.  But worldwide, many more Petromax lanterns exist than Coleman.  Petromax’ brothers, sisters, cousins, and clones include BriteLyt, Butterfly, Anchor, Sea Anchor, Tower, Santrax, Egret, Solex (Italy), Aida, Geniol, Hipolito (Portugal), Primus, Optimus (Sweden), Radius (Sweden), Hasag (Switzerland), Buflam-Petroflam (England), Big Wheel, Light, Red Heart, Silverray, Crown (Iraq), Kohinoor (India), Wenzel (Sam’s Club), Prabhat (India), and Col-Max (USA).  Col-Max?  Yes, just before WWII Coleman made a Petromax clone for export, intended to compete directly with Petromax itself.  

All of which testifies to the excellence of the original Petromax design.

Many of these brands are no longer manufactured (although most appear on eBay from time to time).  All of the new ones (of whatever trademark including Petromax itself) are made in the Far East and any given factory produces several different brands.  Unfortunately, it’s nearly universal that the tooling is worn, threads are rounded and don’t hold, holes don’t line up, pumps don’t pump, and prickers don’t prick.  I feel certain that few if any would meet the old-time Petromax specs.

Advertising hype notwithstanding, if you Google for BriteLyt or Butterfly or Sea Anchor you will discover a whole new world of bitching.  The best advice I can give is to buy a Petromax only where you can return it!  You may have to go through several lanterns before you find a good one.

Why bother?  Because Petromax lanterns will burn diesel fuel with today’s yttrium mantles.  Coleman lanterns won’t. 

In 2006, a contributor to The International Guild of Lamp Researchers said, “the Petromax can be used with diesel – at least for five or six hours (or so, depending on the quality of the fuel). After that time you will most probably find the generator clogged with a coal-like substance . . .:  (ref. question #3644)

Sorry, but that statement is an example of armchair science.  I ran my 500CP Petromax for 50 consecutive hours on diesel.  The generator (Preston loop) was clear before, during, and after the test, ready for another 50 hours. 

The Petromax is a kerosene lantern.  There’s a running war between The International Guild of Lamp Researchers and BriteLyt on the safety of burning gasoline in a BriteLyt.  BriteLyt says you can.  The Guild says you can’t.

There are reported cases of Petromax lanterns “exploding” when run on gasoline.  Neal McRae best covers the design issues.

I have to side with The Guild on this one because, in addition to design issues, there’s the poor workmanship so widespread in today’s Petromax lanterns. 

For example, I own a BriteLyt that will not turn off when run on gasoline.  I returned this lantern when it was brand new to BriteLyt in Florida because of the incredible quantity of gunk in the fuel tank.  They sent it back to me a month later, all better.  

Now, with the control valve in the OFF position, the lantern continues to burn.  It will not shut completely off.  (To my mind, this is a factory workmanship issue more than a Petromax design issue.)

The only way to turn the lantern off is to crack the thumb screw on the filler cap and release pressure . . . thereby releasing flammable gasoline vapor mere inches away from a burning mantle.  Not safe!  (That practice may be acceptable with kerosene ¾ the Coleman 241, for example, a kerosene lantern, was designed that way ¾ but it is decidedly unsafe with gasoline.)

So . . .  Can you burn gasoline in a Petromax and get away with it?  Sure.  Can you pump gasoline while smoking a cigarette and get away with it?  Sure.  Now riddle me this:  Is it a smart thing to do? 

This article is only the tip of the iceberg.  We haven’t touched on mineral spirits or burning fluid or animal fat as fuel.  Or Rayos or Duplexes or Aladdins.  Or carbide miner’s lamps or candle-making or lantern repairs or a host of other topics.  But I hope it gives you some light and I hope it helps keep you safe.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do not own any stock in any company mentioned in this article.  Nor do I own stock in any competitor of any company mentioned in this article. JWR Adds: Here is my own disclaimer (per FTC File No. P034520): I accept cash-paid advertising. To the best of my knowledge, as of the date of this posting, none of my advertisers that sell the products mentioned in this article have solicited me or paid me to write any reviews or endorsements, nor have they provided me any free or reduced-price gear in exchange for any reviews or endorsements. I am not a stock holder in any company. I do, however, benefit from sales through the SurvivalBlog Amazon Store. If you click on one of our Amazon links and then “click through” to order ANY product from (not just the ones listed in our catalog), then we will earn a modest sales commission.