How oil lamps work
The oil lamp is one of the first methods of alternative lighting used by our ancestors. The use of oil lamps can be traced back to the Mesolithic age in the form of saucer shaped rocks. The technology behind oil lamps is quite simple and produces light that is brighter than candlelight.
Essentially all that is needed to create an oil lamp is a vessel to serve as a fuel well, a wick, and a fuel oil.
Though the first oil lamps were composed of such materials as hollowed stones and shells, these are hardly the safest alternatives. These lamps progressed into saucers, bowls, covered bowls with spouts, and ultimately into the oil lamps that you can recognise commercially today with a metal well and a wheel that moves the wick up and down inside of a glass hurricane shield. In a pinch you can create an oil lamp out of just about any non-flammable container with an opening that will accept a wick. The only purpose that the vessel serves is holding a quantity of fuel oil.
Wicking has been made from several materials, but just about any natural fibre can create an acceptable wick. Reeds, rush, linen and papyrus have been used in the past. Flax and hemp are used more frequently today, and cotton is the most commonly used commercial wicking material. Essentially, the job of the wick is simply to move the fuel away from the well and to the flame. Originally wicks were simply lain with one end in the fuel oil, but became safer and more portable when wicks were inserted into spout-like protrusions most commonly referred to as nozzles. Today's commercially produced oil lamps shut the fuel oil into the well and keep the lit end of the wick well elevated and separated from the fuel source.
Whale oil, peanut oil, fish oil, nut oils, and castor oil are among some of the oils that have been used successfully as lamp fuel oils. Above these, olive oil had been the oil of choice before refined lamp oils were produced for both household and ceremonial use. Today you will most often find oil lamps burning pure paraffin oil (which is nearly smokeless and odourless) or kerosene. These oils are cleaner, more efficient and produce more light than olive oil in oil lamps.
The wider the wick is, or the more wicks that are used, the faster the fuel oil is consumed. Though a wider wick will consume more oil, it will not necessarily deliver more light in exchange. When the wick is soaked in fuel oil and lit, the flame will draw additional fuel oil up the wick as you would sip a drink from a straw or draw water into a sponge. This movement of the fuel oil through the wick is known as capillary action. Today's oil lamps will often have a wheel that moves the wick up and down, which allows you to control the size of the flame as well as the fuel consumption.
You can experiment with oil lamps using a non-flammable saucer (one that you do not mind ruining), a scrap of cotton cloth or cord (2" long), and some olive oil. Create your own primitive oil lamp by pouring olive oil into the well of the saucer to serve as your vessel. Place half of the short cotton cord or scrap (your wick) into the well of oil and allow the rest to lie on a dry portion of the saucer (do not allow it to hang off of the edge as burning material may fall). The oil will travel up the wick until it is saturated. When the wick is full of oil, light the end that is exposed. You have just composed all three of the basic parts and created your own working primitive oil lamp.
- Discovering Oil Lamps, Cecil A. Meadows, 2001
- Nouveautés lychnologiques, Light and Economy: An Essay about the Economy of Prehistoric and Ancient Lamps, Christian-Heinrich Wunderlich, October 2003