Hile they can now be found at the counter of virtually any convenience store, gas station, or newsstand, the portable lighter’s history only dates back about 200 years. The first lighter was developed by Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, a German chemist, in 1823.
Döbereiner’s lamp, as is was called, uses a chemical reaction between zinc and sulfuric acid to create flammable hydrogen gas. The gas is then let out of the glass-encased device through a valve, at the mouth of which lies a piece of platinum gauze. The gas meets the platinum, which acts as a catalyst for an exothermic reaction between the hydrogen and the oxygen in the air, causing the platinum to get extremely hot. The heat it generates ignites the hydrogen gas, and the flame can be controlled by opening or closing the valve.
Unfortunately, though it was in production for nearly 80 years, Döbereiner’s lamp was too dangerous for widespread adoption. By design, it traps leftover hydrogen gas inside after each use, making it highly explosive. It was also large and delicate, making it difficult to transport.
It wasn’t until the patenting of ferrocerium in 1903 that the truly portable lighter became a possibility. Ferrocerium is a type of synthetic flint which produces extremely hot sparks when oxidized, which can be achieved with friction. Unlike flint, which creates sparks from the material used to strike it, when a hard metal like steel strikes a piece of ferrocerium, the sparks are actually flaming hot bits of the latter material itself. It is significantly cheaper than flint, making it ideal for use in disposable lighters.
Though contemporary models have all sorts of features designed to make your life easier, the lighters developed at the beginning of the 20th used the same basic technologies most lighters rely on today. They typically consist of a reservoir filled with a liquid fuel, such as naphtha or butane, with a wick that leads up to a nozzle. Next to the mouth of the nozzle sits a piece of ferrocerium (or, in some cases, actual flint), and a metal wheel which, when spun, generates friction against the stone and produces sparks. The sparks meet the fuel at the nozzle’s opening and create a flame, which is often adjustable by opening or closing the nozzle. Various improvements, including wind and water-proof designs, were introduced beginning in the 1930s.
Notable exceptions to the standard include flameless lighters, such as those found built into many automobiles, as well as flameless lighter, which use a steady spark for ignition. Both of these technologies are common among USB-powered models.