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History of Lighters: From Mundane Tools to Iconic Symbols of Style and Innovation

Lighters are common, so you might not realise how innovative they are. Here is a brief history of the lighter and when they became fashion icons.

Jun 21, 2024 | By Florence Sutton
Image by Forest Plum from Unsplash

Some items have been around for so long that they have become embedded in the modern world. Imagining a world without them would boggle the mind. The lighter may be one of these. In the 100 Greatest Gadgets documentary, Stephen Fry named the cigarette lighter the greatest invention in human history.

The lighter we use daily descended from techniques used by prehistoric humans to tame fire. Contrary to what most people believe, the invention of the cigarette lighter predates that of the matchstick. German inventor Carl Auer von Welsbach obtained the first patent for a lighter in 1903. This ingenious device was initially designed to ignite gas lamps, a departure from the old methods of fire-making.

What spark of genius created this flame in a bottle so ubiquitous it became part of everyday life? We use it to light our pipes, cigars, cigarettes, campfires, and wood-burning stoves. Let us trace the history.

And Then There Was Light

Scientific evidence indicates that methods of taming fire date back 400,000 years, and it was crucial in prehistoric times. Learning to master fire meant our ancestors could cook food, keep predators away, produce new tools, and stay warm.

Taming the flame began with the skill of lighting a fire. The first method involved striking two hard materials together to create a spark. It remains the primary technique used by lighters today.

This seemingly simple technique underwent numerous refinements over thousands of years before proving its efficacy. To produce enough heat to light a fire, people had to try different combinations, as striking flint against flint was not very satisfactory.

The technique of striking a siliceous rock against iron ore (pyrite or marcasite) appears to have originated around 15,000 years ago in Europe. Known as the flint lighter, it was the first of its kind and remains used in some places. Steel replaced pyrite at some point because it produced a more intense number of sparks.

Döbereiner’s Lamp

In 1823, German chemist and University of Jena professor Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner invented the “tinderbox” (Feuerzeug). It is one of the earliest modern lighters, although it looks nothing like the lighters we see today. Nevertheless, it was a popular gadget, selling over a million units in its heyday. The bizarre-looking contraption worked by reacting zinc with dilute sulphuric acid to produce hydrogen. You use it by lifting a valve and firing the hydrogen towards a “platinum sponge.” This reacted with atmospheric oxygen, heating the platinum and igniting the hydrogen, producing a steady flame.


Ferrocerium is a synthetic alloy that produces hot and bright sparks when struck. Often incorrectly referred to as ‘flint,’ ferrocerium is an entirely different substance. The confusion stems from the previous use of flint as a spark-producing material.

Austrian chemist Carl Auer von Welsbach invented ferrocerium in 1903, which revolutionized the lighter. It made creating the necessary ignition sparks easy and relatively affordable.

In the wake of Welsbach’s patent, the lighter industry rapidly grew. Small, portable lighters revolutionized how people interacted with fire. Early lighters were often fueled by a highly flammable liquid called naphtha. They were more reliable than matchsticks, particularly in windy or wet weather.

The First Gas Lighters

The arrival of the gas lighter was a revolution. With the flick of a finger, you created a spark to ignite a small amount of gas released. Once the reservoir was empty, you did not have to throw it away. You merely had to go to a newsagent to get a gas refill.

The Crillon was the first pocket lighter, appearing in 1948. It was invented by Henry Pingeot and made famous by Marcel Quercia. 

Wartime Innovations

The usefulness of lighters took on critical significance during times of conflict. The exigencies of World War I and World War II drove innovations in fire-making technology. Soldiers in the trenches depended on lighters and matches to do various tasks, from lighting cigarettes to igniting fires for cooking.

Improvised Lighters

Life in the trenches during the First World War (1914-18) was notably tricky, particularly on the front lines. Their resources, tools, and general supplies were extremely limited.

Soldiers had to improvise, making do with what they had to create the tools they needed to survive. One example was a lighter fashioned out of an empty bullet cartridge. It had a holed chimney cap to protect the flame from wind better.

The First Zippo Lighter

Image courtesy of Unsplash

The Zippo is originally from Pennsylvania. Inventor Georges Blaisdell had a lightbulb moment. He designed a storm lighter (with petrol) with a hinged top in 1931. Skilled users could open and light it in one motion, and the flame didn’t go out easily. Zippo was named to reference the zip, another revolutionary invention.

In 1933, the Zippo became the world’s most famous lighter. The original design proved so popular that it remains in use today, with only minor changes.

Early Zippos were made of brass. However, metal shortages during the Second World War led to the use of black crackle steel. During wartime, Zippos were commonly decorated with unit crests and other military symbols, a trend still popular today.

The Cultural Shift

Lighters became symbols of style and sophistication in the second half of the 20th century. The principal reason for having a lighter handy is for cigars and cigarettes. Companies like EasySmokes, which produces the best cigarettes in Canada, have changed the way people consume tobacco. However, lighters remain the engineering marvel they were when they first came out.

In fact, it has progressed from a necessity to a luxury. Decorative lighters emerged, with popular brands like Zippo becoming highly sought-after collectibles. Lighting cigarettes and candles became ritualistic, accompanied by the distinctive click of a well-designed lighter.

Lighters Become Art

The inner mechanisms of lighters have barely changed since their introduction. However, lighters became a fashion accessory following the Second World War, particularly the Zippo brand. They came out in a wide variety of artistic designs and metals.

The Zippo quickly became a popular cultural icon in movies, television, and advertising. Even today, vintage designs are hugely popular with collectors.

The Vietnam War

The Zippo lighter became an American armed forces symbol in the two decades of the Vietnam War (1955-1975). American soldiers fighting in Vietnam often had their Zippo lighters engraved with various personal mottos, slogans, icons, and individual designs.

Lighters allowed soldiers to express their emotions, beliefs, and values during the now-infamous Vietnam War. Vietnam war lighters have become highly valued collectibles, some fetching impressive amounts in auctions.

Piezoelectric Lighter

In the 1960s, the piezoelectric lighter was developed as an alternative to fuel-burning lighters. The design used a small, spring-loaded hammer to hit a quartz crystal. Deforming the crystal resulted in an electrical discharge instead of a naked flame, serving as the ignition.

While still in use today, the piezoelectric lighter’s popularity was relatively short-lived, fading out of mainstream use during the 1970s. Smokers do not typically use it, but variants are used for other practical purposes, such as lighting a barbecue pit.

The Bic Disposable Lighter

While gas lighters were introduced in 1948, the first Bic disposable lighters were not introduced until 1973 in Paris. The intention was to rival the popularity of metal-cased Zippos but at an affordable price.

While lacking the creative or fashionable appeal of the Zippo, disposable lighters were ideal for money-conscious consumers. They were widely popular and remain in use today. Bic remains the market leader in that category.

Illumination as Fashion

Creating instant fire has a rich and complex history, driven by necessity and human ingenuity. Whether ignited by the flick or a strike, the flame has played a central role in human history. Without seeming overly dramatic, the ability to make fire instantaneously has significantly impacted our way of life and sense of fashion.

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