Design & Make

Pocket Lighter

by David Vega December 23, 2009
ReadPocket Lighter

Man’s fire, the gods’ greatest gift. Forgive the overused metaphor, but I was as inspired as young Prometheus when I held hot fire in my hands, produced by my very own steel pocket lighter. A skinny eighteen-year-old takes on a serious swagger when he smokes a cigarette, and half of it happens right when he lights up.

In some long-gone circles, the measure of a man’s worth was his pocket lighter.  (The old films told us as much — just watch the shadowy faces of the great male film icons bathed in the flickering light). The cigarette lighter was a satisfying and necessary investment in the small cache of a man’s personal belongings, like his good leather wallet, a pair of jeans, or favorite hat. There was the timeless chivalry of lighting a woman’s cigarette with a bit of steel that lent a young gent a gleam of class, showing that he had more sense than his modern counterpart, the man who carries around a plastic Bic disposable (and pops off beer caps for his buddies.) The era when men wore hats on a regular basis may have come and gone (and come again) but the ghost of the lighter has maintained a home in his right hip pocket, as seen in every pair of Levis, the epitome of American ruggedness.

Advertising for Zippo lighter, 1959.

I’m the last person to romanticize smoking at any age these days, but I still appreciate the craftsmanship and simple mechanics of the classic pocket lighter. The rounded corners and heft as it sits in the palm of your hand are things of beauty, and the metallic ping! when you flip the lid with your thumb and tsssk! as flint strikes steel, followed by the slow rolling flame. There’s a kind of elemental masculinity to it that men of all eras can connect with.

In the 16th century the first lighters began to take shape as flintlock pistols were converted for use. In 1823, a German Chemist named Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner created a device that utilized the heat produced by the reaction of hydrogen to a platinum sponge. The bulky and highly dangerous invention, popularly referred to as “Döbereiner’s Lamp,” fell out of production by the end of the 19th century.


Vintage lighter made with brass.

As demand for cigarettes became widespread in the 20th century, the lighter saw significant advances. In 1903, Carl Auer von Welsbach invented The Flint, which, when scratched, would produce a large amount of spark that would light the fuel. These first lighters included both pocket and table versions, and were called “striker lighters.” When a steel bar made contact with a small piece of flint, the resulting spark would ignite a piece of asbestos soaked in naphtha and create a flame. (Naphtha was later replaced by butane as the fuel of choice, having less odor.) Seven years later, New York craftsman named Louis Aronson applied for a patent for the Pisto-O-Liter, and in 1913 developed The Wonderlite, a permanent match-style version. The Ronson Art Metal Works would soon shift its focus from ornamental lamps, bookends and statues to full-time lighter manufacturing, renaming itself the Ronson Lighter Company.

Patent for Ronson banjo, 1933.

The Great War began that same year, and with it came design changes. When soldiers realized that a sudden spark from a lit match could alert sharp shooters to their position, they began using wasted cartridges and glowing wooden blocks to start their cigarettes. Tinder wick lighters (in which a spark ignites the wick, allowing it to smolder rather than produce a flame) were made by a variety of companies to combat such dangers.

It wasn’t until 1926, however, that what we know as the first automatic flame pocket lighter was born. That year, Aronson’s “one finger-one motion” mechanism premiered as a feature of The Banjo, a lighter that was able to ignite and create a flame in one fluid movement. Known (cumbersomely) as the “Press, It Lights…Release, Its Out” system, the new innovation quickly became a staple in the industry.

Patent for Ronson pocket lighter, 1932.


Patent for Ronson Pocket Lighter

The Banjo’s overwhelming success and the growing popularity of cigarette smoking urged other companies to develop their own lighters. Companies like Colibri, Dunhill, Evans, Dupont, and Scripto started manufacturing their own versions.

One of the most successful companies to challenge Ronson was Zippo, headed by George Blaisdell. Introduced in 1932, his windproof lighter became fierce competition for the attention of a new generation of smokers. “It works or we fix it free,”,Zippo promised its customers. This guarantee quickly gained the company recognition, making it one of the world’s largest manufacturers of lighters.

With precision metalwork in high demand during World War II, the U.S. military employed Ronson plants to produce ammunition 24 hours a day. Not to be outdone, Zippo won a valuable military contract and was commissioned to provide lighters to American servicemen. Ironically, even though U.S. soldiers were issued the Zippo lighters, American-made Sherman tanks were nicknamed “Ronsons” by German tank crews for their propensity to catch fire when hit by tank shells.

Vintage Zippo ad, 1969.

For several years both Zippo and Ronson continued to hold true to their designs, occasionally introducing table and novelty gift lighters, but it was the classic design of their pocket lighters that continued to sell to a loyal consumer base. Both had a simple yet effective cam system and a tube next to the flint screw to hold spare flints, a design that still works incredibly well. In the early 1980s, however, high costs and the advent of cheap disposable lighters forced closure of Ronson’s production facility in England. For a time, a branch in Long Buckby (UK) sold a range of stylish and expensive butane lighters consistent with the firm’s great legacy, before being shuttered. Unfortunately, only the American arm of Ronson remains, selling mostly fluid and flints, a few inexpensive refillables, a naphtha-based Zippo clone, and a few butane lighters. In recent months, however, Zippo announced plans to purchase Ronson to expand their product line. Now, with a firm grip on the pocket lighter industry, can Zippo continue to hold the torch high?

Leading image: Ronson Varaframe lighter, 1957.

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