Geneva-born philosopher and inventor Francois-Pierre-Ami Argand (1750-1803), finally received a British patent for his lamps, invented the previous year in Paris, on March 15th, 1784 (patent no. 1425).  His invention which promised “a lamp that is so constructed to produce neither smoak [sic.] nor smell, and to give considerably more light than any lamp hitherto known” consisted of a tubular wick held between metal tubes, a rack and pinion wick riser assembly and a tall, narrow glass chimney that fit closely around the wick causing air to be drawn up through the center of the flame as well as around its outside, creating more thorough combustion, and thus, a brighter light.  It was designed to burn whale oil and rape-seed (colza) oil issuing from an oil reserve or “font” positioned so that the oil would flow from the force of gravity to the burner.

This invention, developed initially with Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), William Parker and James Watt (1736-1819), in England, was subsequently manufactured by a host of makers in Birmingham including Messenger, Johnston-Brookes, Phipson & Lambley, Fletcher & Day, T. C. Salt and Ratcliff.  Hailed by Rees in his encyclopedia of 1819 The Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature saying “it may be justly ranked among the greatest discoveries of the age” and by Benjamin Franklin who noted it was “much admired for its splendor,” Argand’s invention was the most important advancement in home lighting since the discovery of fire.

Thomas Jefferson, as early as 1784, was an enthusiastic promoter of the new oil lamps, writing from Paris to James Madison and Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, that the newly invented lamps give, “a light equal as is thought to that of six or eight candles.”[1] Madison, Thomson and Richard Henry Lee (signer of the Declaration from Virginia), all requested that Jefferson send them Argand lamps.  Shortly thereafter, on a trip to visit John Adams in London, Jefferson came to the realization that the Argand lamps being manufactured in England under the direction of Watt, Boulton and Argand himself, were superior to those being made in France and shipped his friends English lamps made of Sheffield-plate.

Like the taste in furniture, the design of Argand lamps soon changed from the Neo-classical style of Robert Adam to a more authentically archeological style fostered by the promoters of Republicanism in Paris prior to the French Revolution.  These stylish lamps, which were exported in numbers to the United States, were made of brass and decorated with elaborate chemically-produced finishes imitating the weathered bronze of objects excavated at Herculaneum and the matte and burnished surface of gilt-bronze; the finishing, itself, a work of art.

Most English Classical Argand lamps, were inspired by ancient Greek and Roman urns, stands and bronze vessels.  The work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who made a study of such objects, was a rich source of inspiration for early 19th-century designers currying to the tastes of a populace fascinated with ancient cultures and focused on the electrifying, on-going archaeological discoveries in Southern Italy.  Piranesi published two books that were particularly influential: Diverse maniere d’adornari i cammini in 1769 and in 1778, Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi….  These works were also influential in the design of architecture and furniture, giving interiors a cohesive classical look, evoking both the learning of the Classical world and its Democratic ideals.

Through constant advancements in design and fuel, the Argand principal in burners dominated lighting for almost seventy years until the broad introduction of gas and kerosene lighting.  Today, they are admired and collected for their beauty and their technology; an invention that changed the world.

[1] Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, November 11, 1784, in PTJ, 7:505 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Charles Thomson, Paris, November 11, 1784, in ibid., 7:518 (transcription available at Founders Online).