I have seen the light!


Despite the image of Boy scouts in baggy shorts and funny hats, or 1950’s happy campers, Hurricane and pressure Paraffin (Kerosene) lamps do have a place in the Military Vehicle world as set dressing and for practical purposes.

First to define the difference, a Hurricane lamp is a paraffin candle, the fuel is drawn up the wick by capillary action and burns. The result is a low light level that flickers and produces shadows. They do have the benefit that because they burn unpressurised commercial lamp oils such as citronella can be used, this keeps the flying insects at bay.

Hurricane lamp. Bialladin, Tilley

A pressure lamp is a much more technical piece of kit. During the industrial revolution the factory owners soon realised the machines could work twenty four hours a day, the problem was the pesky workers. Due to their inability to see in the dark they couldn’t operate the equipment. The artificial light available at the time was so poor that even then they kept getting caught up in and damaging the machinery. So the race was on to find a bright shadowless source of portable light.

Burner and mantle from Bialladin, with new mantle.

It had long been known that certain substances when heated gave off a bright light, the best known being Lime light used in theatres. This consisted of Quicklime being burnt in an Oxyhydrogen flame. The equipment required was bulky and complicated and could have explosive results.

The first person to crack the problem was John Tilley, who in 1813 patented his ‘Hydro-Pneumatic Burner’ This allowed liquid fuel to be heated and vaporised before combustion. The other key to the lamp was the Mantle. This consists of cotton skeleton doped with a chemical mixture containing mainly Thorium (The only other use for this is to line nuclear reactors)

The mantle contains the vapour when it burns, this heats the mantle and it is the Thorium that produces the light.

It was Thomas’s relation Fredrick that stated using Paraffin as a fuel during the Great War, and started the link between Tilley and the British Military. The Triple Alliance was not tardy either. The German firm Petromax produced lamps, and continues to do so. The American’s used the Coleman lamp, another company still in production.

The basic operation of any pressure lamp follows a three stage process. First the delivery tube and vaporiser are pre-heated; this is accomplished by using a wick soaked in Methalayted Spirit (Wood Alcohol).  Second, when the pre-heating has been completed pressure is applied to the fuel tank, a valve opened and the fuel allowed to flow. Third, the liquid fuel hits the vaporiser, exits through jets and ignites within the mantle.

Contract marks on Bialladin

The first thing to do on obtaining any pressure lamp unless it is brand new is to completely strip it down and check all the seals, and the washer on the pressure valve. A rebuild kit is in the region of £7.50. The glass is also a delicate point, a replacement being about £10. When buying lamps that have come from an official source, especially of the Bialladin type, the meths wick that surrounds the vaporiser tube may be missing. The originals are asbestos, but non asbestos replacements are available.

There are two major types of design illustrated by the Tilley and the Bialladin. In the Tilley the glass bowl is open at the bottom, whilst on the Bialladin the glass is parallel sided and has a metal holed rim at the bottom. The difference is obvious when in windy conditions when the closed design gives a much more stable light.

In addition to light, pressure lamps also produce heat, quite a lot of heat. Leave a lit Tilley or Bialladin inside a 9×9 tent for a couple of hours and the difference in temperature will be quite noticeable.

There are many field adaptions of the lamps; one is to place one inside an open large ammo box standing on its side.  A water container placed on top of the box will warm nicely over the hours. Placed under the sump of a vehicle on cold nights it prevents fuel waxing and oil freezing.  I was also told the placing the lamp under a closed ammo box creates a very good oven, though that I haven’t tried.

Tilley Surgeons lamp number 6. The Doctor’s lamp. Designed to minimise shadow.

The humble Hurricane lamp is not just for keeping bugs at bay. An old Jerry can with the bottom cut out, or any large tin which covers the lamp can have holes punched in the side and used as a dim light to indicate unit positions. With the tin again turned and placed over the top, you have a Hobo Stove.

So maybe now you won’t be as likely to just ignore the humble lamp sitting on the boot sale table.

Tony Banner.