The Central Draft Burner: Ami Argand's Contribution to the American Home
[Author attribution of this article is to Mimi Sherman, City University of New York]
Technological breakthroughs, we know, frequently induce consequences far beyond their original purpose. In the 1780s, François-Pierre-Ami Argand, a Swiss inventor and philosopher, developed and introduced an improved lamp burner that revolutionized interior lighting. Argand, a true child of the Enlightenment, associated with the leading scientific figures of his day, including James Watt, Antoine de Lavoisier, the Montgolfier brothers and Joseph Priestly. His glass chimneyed central draft burner produced light equal to that of six to eight candles. It also improved oxygenation at the burner, reduced consumption of oil, and practically eliminated the need for snuffing (snipping away partially burned wicks to reduce flickering).
This improved technology immediately affected lighting devices in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the second half of the century, this new burner was used with both lighting and heating devices. Its longer term benefits can still be observed in the circular burners of contemporary gas cooking stoves. Argand's new burner led to the development of new lamp forms and eventually affected both space usage and furniture placement patterns. Interestingly, even those persons who have understood the specifics of Argand's contribution to technology have shown little concern for the influence that his center draft burner had on improving the level of light in artificially illuminated interior domestic spaces.
Argand's name is generally unknown and recognition of his contributions to interior lighting has largely been lost to history. The Franco-phonic name of Ami Argand is almost totally unknown in France where lamps with central draft technology are called Quinquets. They are named after Antoine-Arnoult Quinquet, chemist and pharmacist from Soissons, who used industrial espionage and trickery to deprive Argand of the fair fruits of his invention in France. Even those familiar with the appellation "Argand burner" have known little about the man. This situation has recently been remedied with the 1999 publication of John J. Wolfe's Brandy, Balloons and Lamps: Ami Argand, 1750-1803.
Born in Geneva to a Swiss watchmaker and his wife on July 5, 1750, Argand was the ninth of ten children. He was well-educated. His parents intended him for the clergy and enrolled him at the Auditoire de Philsophie in Geneva. Instead, in 1775 Argand went to Paris for further study in chemistry and physics, carrying introductions to Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier. Lavoisier was a brilliant 18th century French scientist and chemist whose seminal studies involving oxygen and combustion brought a major change in scientific thinking about the role of oxygen in combustion. After several years of study and lecturing, Argand accepted a post in Paris as a teacher of chemistry. One of his interests concerned the distilling of spirits. In the 1780, while working for a distiller in Languedoc, Argand solved his need for better light during the night by developing the double-tube, circular-wick, oil burning lamp with chimney which has come to bear his name.
Despite the availability of information regarding a wide variety of scientific advances during the eighteenth century, no source has been brought forward to suggest that Argand's central draft technology is other than his own creation. In fact, until recently, no reliable reference to Argand's life or his work existed. Wolfe's recent biography of Argand finally redresses this deficiency. Wolfe has meticulously gathered information which demonstrates that it was indeed Argand who first succeeded in creating the burner technology which bears his name. Followers there were aplenty, starting within months of his original patents, and Argand suffered greatly from their scurrilous purloining of his techniques. Even Benjamin Franklin, diplomat and inventor in late eighteenth-century America, came up with a variation. But Franklin did not include the all important chimney. Franklin's suggestion remained simply an idea and was not at all damaging to Argand whose conception was truly a work of genius.
What, exactly, was it that Argand accomplished? Illumination prior to Argand's central draft burner relied on handmade candles and a variety of open or partially open oil containers into which cotton or rush wicks were inserted. The fuels were tallow, alcohol, and any available oil, including fish, seal, whale and various vegetable oils. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, some glass containers with either single or double wicks inserted into drop-in burners were found in well-to-do homes. Scientific experiment had demonstrated that two wicks burning side by side delivered more than twice the illumination derived from two independent light sources. This knowledge led to the design and use of the drop-in burners with two side-by-side tubes set atop flint or blown glass containers. Argand's innovative central draft burner improved greatly on the principle of the paired wicks. Furthermore, its more complete combustion greatly reduced the need for snuffing. But, lamps with these new burners were very expensive and required a fine grade of oil which made them expensive to maintain. Even with high initial costs and high maintenance, lamps with central draft burners delivered high light levels, and this quality made them popular with the middle and upper classes.
Argand made two essential improvements in central draft burner technology. First, he mounted a cylindrical wick between two concentric metal tubes. Openings at the base of these tubes allowed air to reach the burner through the center of the inner tube as well as from the outside of the outer tube. Second, Argand improved the draft of this well-oxygenated air with addition of a tall straight chimney. His first chimneys were made of pierced metal, but he soon substituted glass chimneys. Flint glass was found to be preferable for the chimneys because it could withstand the heat created at the circular burner without cracking. Argand's's own preference was for blue glass chimneys, possibly because they reduced the intensity of the light at the burner.
Blue or clear, the chimneys are not simply decorative. They force the heated gases produced at the burner to rise at an accelerated rate, allowing fresh, oxygenated air to enter at the bottom center of the inner tube. The resulting convection lifts away the carbonated gases produced at the burning wick, enhancing the efficiency of the burner. The chimney also steadies the flame and protects it from random drafts. At the same time, the transparency of the glass allows the greatest dispersion of the light produced at the burner. Argand is believed to have been the first to employ a chimney in this way, but almost every subsequent oil-burning lamp would utilize one. The resulting level of illumination was far brighter than that from any lamp then known.
The oil used with these new burners had to be of a very fine grade and were costly. The choice was between fine vegetable oil - usually colza or rapeseed oil in Europe - and whale oil. The size and prowess of American whaling industry made whale oil the fuel of choice in this country. The best quality whale oil came from the head of the Balenus Mysticus, the spermaceti whale. Almost clear in color, spermaceti oil in Argand's lamp burned with a bright flame. Its brightness was claimed to equal five to eight candles. It also had an acceptable aroma - a significant difference from that of other burning oils. These advantages were not without drawbacks. Adding fuel to the reservoir seems always to have included spillage. Also, the burner tubes of the early lamps and the tubular wick riding between them were open at their lower extreme, so gravity encouraged drips from the oil-soaked circular wick. This necessitated the addition of glass drip cups suspended below the tubes. And these cups needed, of course, to be washed frequently. There was also the problem that the animal oil could become rancid.
Despite all of these problems elaborate and costly lamps utilizing the Argand burner technology quickly became the choice of the well-to-do in the first quarter of the 19th century. By 1830, the number and variety of lamps employing Argand technology reached well down the economic ladder. Expensive lamps continued to be manufactured, but painted tin or japanned variations also sold well. On the expensive end were the heavy mantel lamps popular in the 1830s and 1840s, many of them weighing upwards of twenty pounds. A growing variety of expensive, free-standing table lamps was also introduced at this time. These new forms acquired a wonderfully fanciful nomenclature. " Solar" lamps seemed to be as bright as the sun and their name was derived from the Latin for sun, sol. "Astral" was also a heavenly reference, again from the Latin astra or stars. Sinumbras drew their name from the Latin sine umbra, or without a shadow, since their large diameter annular reservoirs allowed production of a bright light with fewer attendant shadows than those cast by earlier lamps. A good many evidences of the use of these lamps in American homes survives in the form of drawings, paintings, and prints.
Two of these paintings deserve special mention in this context. The Hobby Horse, a painting from about 1840 by an unknown artist, features two delightful children with sinumbra lamp on a small, round table in the rear of the room. In The Reverend John Atwood and His Family by Henry F. Darby, 1845, an astral lamp is prominently displayed on the table in the center of the family portrait.
Such works of art also demonstrate how improved artificial lighting affected room use and furniture placement. For example, the appearance of sinumbra lamps in the 1810s and 1820s is almost certainly related to the development of the placement of tables in the centers of front parlors, replacing the 18th century pattern of removing pieces of furniture not in use to the sides of the room. Placed on a center table, the large sinumbra lamp provided sufficient illumination so that several persons sitting around the table could take advantage of the single light source. An 1852 lithograph by Benjamin Robert Haydon, Reading the Scriptures, shows a middle-aged gentleman seated at a table clearly in the center of a room, reading from the Bible while a woman, presumably his wife, listens intently from the other side of the table.
Because the cost of lamps and fuel continued to rise, daylight remained an important light source throughout the 19th century. This is also seen in 19th century works of art. For example, John Harden's drawing Members of the Harden Family Sewing at Brathway Hall, c1804, depicts family members seated at a table near a window sewing. Even though the astral lamp is prominently displayed on the table in the center of the previously mentioned The Reverend John Atwood and His Family, the light in the room clearly comes from the window. And, in George Scharf's drawing entitled Dearest Mother, c1868, an older lady sits at a table reading by the light issuing from a skylight despite the presence of a lamp on a chest of drawers across the room from her.
Although central draft lamps were widely accepted by 1840, as we have seen their use was limited in the daytime. One reason for this was the rising cost of their fuel, whale oil. Therefore, a lamp that retained the advantages of the central draft burner, but could burn lard or other coarse fuels was needed. One solution was the "solar" lamp whose burner was close to the wide, almost flat top of the fuel reservoir. This allowed use of the heat produced at the burner to liquefy the coarser fuel and impregnate the wick. And, as kerosene was making its debut in the late 1850s, the era of whale-oil fueled Argand technology lighting devices was reaching an end. Kerosene as a fuel finally replaced the whale oil needed for the complicated Argands with a simpler flat wick-in-a-cup system and bellied glass chimney. But, the "Rochester" kerosene burner re-introduced central draft technology using kerosene for fuel in the 1880s.
The lamp manufacturing industry produced enormous numbers of kerosene lamps for home and industrial use, but the switch from whale oil to kerosene did not necessarily render older central draft lamps obsolete. After 1860, many advertisements appeared in magazines and newspapers suggesting that owners of older lighting devices bring in their sinumbra, astral, solar and other such lamps to local lamp merchants and repairmen so that the burner technology could be converted for use with the newer and less expensive fuel. Numbers of these "updated" lamps (along with other unaltered examples) still exist in the collections of historic houses across the country. Figures 2 and 3 illustrate the Cornelius solar lamp of 1843 from the collection of the Merchant's House Museum in New York City which was retrofitted some time after 1860 with a flat wick burner. Its lard oil reservoir was sealed at the base to create a cup for kerosene and a hooded burner was attached. The lamp in Figure 5, also from the Merchant's House collection, had its central draft burner removed and the bulbous form above the Rococo Revival standard was added to conceal the kerosene cup.1
Imagine, for a moment, the history of artificial light without the mention of Thomas Alva Edison. Impossible. But in the late 18th century Argand's central draft burner had as dramatic an effect on the possibilities for all interior lighting as did Edison's harnessing of electricity for illumination in the late 19th. While gas lighting was used early in large interior spaces, the more intimate spaces of domestic interiors benefitted dramatically from the creation and evolution of central draft lamps. François-Pierre-Ami Argand, whether his contributions have been acknowledged or not, certainly contributed significantly to the advancement of technology in the American home.
1. Use of a circular Argand burner was not reserved to the assorted free-standing lamps which were found in well-to-do homes of the first half of the 19th century. That technology had also been adapted for use with the coal-gas burning gasoliers of the period because a circular burner helped to eliminate problems of maintaining steady pressure in the infant gas light industry Descendants of the circular burner are still found in the modern gas stove.