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A railroad brakeman's signal lantern, fueled by kerosene. CNW brakeman's kerosene lantern.JPG
A railroad brakeman's signal lantern, fueled by kerosene.

A lantern is an often portable source of lighting, typically featuring a protective enclosure for the light source  historically usually a candle or a wick in oil, and often a battery-powered light in modern times to make it easier to carry and hang up, and make it more reliable outdoors or in drafty interiors. Lanterns may also be used for signaling, as torches, or as general light-sources outdoors.



The lantern enclosure was primarily used to prevent a burning candle or wick being extinguished from wind, rain or other causes. Some antique lanterns have only a metal grid, indicating their function was to protect the candle or wick during transportation and avoid the excess heat from the top to avoid unexpected fires.

Another important function was to reduce the risk of fire should a spark leap from the flame or the light be dropped. This was especially important below deck on ships: a fire on a wooden ship was a major catastrophe. Use of unguarded lights was taken so seriously that obligatory use of lanterns, rather than unprotected flames, below decks was written into one of the few known remaining examples of a pirate code, on pain of severe punishment. [1]

Lanterns may also be used for signaling. In naval operations, ships used lights to communicate at least as far back as the Middle Ages; [2] the use of a lantern that blinks code to transmit a message dates to the mid-1800s. [3] In railroad operations, lanterns have multiple uses. Permanent lanterns on poles are used to signal trains about the operational status of the track ahead, sometimes with color gels in front of the light to signify stop, etc. [4] Historically, a flagman at a level crossing used a lantern to stop cars and other vehicular traffic before a train arrived. [5] Lanterns also provided a means to signal from train-to-train or from station-to-train. [6]

A "dark lantern" was a candle lantern with a sliding shutter so that a space could be conveniently made dark without extinguishing the candle. For example, in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Red-Headed League", the detective and police make their way down to a bank vault by lantern light but then put a 'screen over that dark lantern' in order to wait in the dark for thieves to finish tunneling. [7] This type of lantern could also preserve the light source for sudden use when needed.

Arabic style lanterns (fanous), symbolic in the Islamic month of Ramadan Arabic lanterns.jpg
Arabic style lanterns (fanous), symbolic in the Islamic month of Ramadan

Lanterns may be used in religious observances. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, lanterns are used in religious processions and liturgical entrances, usually coming before the processional cross. Lanterns are also used to transport the Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Great Saturday during Holy Week.

Lanterns are used in many Asian festivals. During the Ghost Festival, lotus shaped lanterns are set afloat in rivers and seas to symbolically guide the lost souls of forgotten ancestors to the afterlife. During the Lantern Festival, the displaying of many lanterns is still a common sight on the 15th day of the first lunar month throughout China. During other Chinese festivities, kongming lanterns (sky lanterns) can be seen floating high into the air. However, some jurisdictions and organizations ban the use of sky lanterns because of concerns about fire and safety. [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

The term "lantern" can be used more generically to mean a light source, or the enclosure for a light source, even if it is not portable. Decorative lanterns exist in a wide range of designs. Some hang from buildings, such as street lights enclosed in glass panes. Others are placed on or just above the ground; low-light varieties can function as decoration or landscape lighting, and can be a variety of colours and sizes. The housing for the top lamp and lens section of a lighthouse may be called a lantern. [14]


The word lantern comes via French [15] from Latin lanterna meaning "lamp, torch," [16] possibly itself derived from Greek. [17]

An alternate historical spelling was "lanthorn", believed to derive from the early use of horn windows. [17]


Lanterns were usually made from a metal frame with several sides (usually four, but up to eight) or round, commonly with a hook or a hoop of metal on top. Windows of some translucent material may be fitted in the sides; these are now usually glass or plastic but formerly were thin sheets of animal horn, or tinplate punched with holes or decorative patterns.

Paper lanterns are made in societies around the world.

A lantern generally contains a burning light source: a candle, liquid oil with a wick, [18] or gas with a mantle. The ancient Chinese sometimes captured fireflies in transparent or semi-transparent containers and used them as (short-term) lanterns, and use of fireflies in transparent containers was also a widespread practice in ancient India; however, since these were short-term solutions, the use of fire torches was more prevalent.[ citation needed ]

Modern varieties often place an electric light in a decorative glass case.


15th-century candle lantern from Germany, perforated metal OHM - Geburt Christi 1e.jpg
15th-century candle lantern from Germany, perforated metal

Lanterns have been used functionally, for light rather than decoration, since antiquity. [18] Some used a wick in oil, [18] while others were essentially protected candle-holders. Before the development of glass sheets, animal horn scraped thin and flattened was used as the translucent window.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, middle eastern towns hired watchmen to patrol the streets at night, as a crime deterrent. Each watchman carried a lantern or oil lamp against the darkness. [19] [ page needed ] The practice continued up through at least the 18th century. [20]

In March 1764 and twice in October 1764, George Allsopp, a British-born Canadian, was arrested in Quebec for violating an order to carry lanterns during the night. [21] There was violence every time he was arrested and Allsopp would denounce the military. In October he prosecuted the soldiers involved in his arrests. [21]

Public spaces became increasingly lit with lanterns in the 1500s, [22] especially following the invention of lanterns with glass windows, which greatly improved the quantity of light. In 1588 the Parisian Parlement decreed that a torch be installed and lit at each intersection, and in 1594 the police changed this to lanterns. [23] Beginning in 1667 during the reign of King Louis XIV, thousands of street lights were installed in Parisian streets and intersections. [24] Under this system, streets were lit with lanterns suspended 20 yards (18 m) apart on a cord over the middle of the street at a height of 20 feet (6.1 m); as an English visitor enthused in 1698, 'The streets are lit all winter and even during the full moon!' [25] In London, public street lighting was implemented around the end of the 17th century; a diarist wrote in 1712 that ‘All the way, quite through Hyde Park to the Queen's Palace at Kensington, lanterns were placed for illuminating the roads on dark nights.’ [26]

Modern lanterns

Fueled lanterns

All fueled lanterns are somewhat hazardous owing to the danger of handling flammable and toxic fuel, danger of fire or burns from the high temperatures involved, and potential dangers from carbon monoxide poisoning if used in an enclosed environment.

Simple wick lanterns remain available. They are cheap and durable and usually can provide enough light for reading. They require periodic trimming of the wick and regular cleaning of soot from the inside of the glass chimney.

Mantle lanterns use a woven ceramic impregnated gas mantle to accept and re-radiate heat as visible light from a flame. The mantle does not burn (but the cloth matrix carrying the ceramic must be "burned out" with a match prior to its first use). When heated by the operating flame the mantle becomes incandescent and glows brightly. The heat may be provided by a gas, by kerosene, or by a pressurized liquid such as "white gas", which is essentially naphtha. For protection from the high temperatures produced and to stabilize the airflow, a cylindrical glass shield called the globe or chimney is placed around the mantle.

Manually pressurized lanterns using white gas (also marketed as Coleman fuel or "Camp Fuel") are manufactured by the Coleman Company in one and two-mantle models. Some models are dual fuel and can also use gasoline. These are being supplanted by a battery-powered fluorescent lamp and LED models, which are safer in the hands of young people and inside tents. Liquid fuel lanterns remain popular where the fuel is easily obtained and in common use.

Many portable mantle-type fuel lanterns now use fuel gases that become liquid when compressed, such as propane, either alone or combined with butane. Such lamps usually use a small disposable steel container to provide the fuel. The ability to refuel without liquid fuel handling increases safety. Additional fuel supplies for such lamps have an indefinite shelf life if the containers are protected from moisture (which can cause corrosion of the container) and excess heat.

Electric lanterns

Street lanterns in Algeciras, Andalusia, Spain Fuenteplazaalta.JPG
Street lanterns in Algeciras, Andalusia, Spain

Lanterns designed as permanently mounted electric lighting fixtures are used in interior, landscape, and civic lighting applications. Styles can evoke former eras, unify street furniture themes, or enhance aesthetic considerations. They are manufactured for use with various wired voltage supplies.

Various battery types are used in portable light sources. They are more convenient, safer, and produce less heat than combustion lights. Solar-powered lanterns have become popular in developing countries, where they provide a safer and cheaper alternative to kerosene lamps. [27]

Lanterns utilizing LEDs are popular as they are more energy-efficient and rugged than other types, and prices of LEDs suitable for lighting have dropped.

Some rechargeable fluorescent lanterns may be plugged in at all times and may be set up to illuminate upon a power failure, a useful feature in some applications. During extensive power failures (or for remote use), supplemental recharging may be provided from an automobile's 12-volt electrical system or from a modest solar-powered charger.

Hand-held lanterns

Exterior lighting

The derived term "lantern jaw[ed]" is used in two quite different still current ways, comparing faces with different types of lantern. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it refers to "long thin jaws, giving a hollow appearance to the cheek"; [28] this use was recorded in 1361, referring to a lantern with concave horn sides before glass was in use. Another meaning of "lantern jaw" compares a lantern with a jutting base – such as the 15th-century example above – to the face of a person with the extended chin of mandibular prognathism; [29] this condition was also known as Habsburg jaw or Habsburg lip, as it was a hereditary feature of the House of Habsburg (see, for example, portraits of Charles V).

Raise the Red Lantern , a 1991 Chinese film, prominently features lanterns as a motif.

"The Tell-Tale Heart", a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, features the use of a dark lantern by the protagonist to shine a single ray of light on his victim's eye.

See also

Related Research Articles

Kerosene, paraffin, or lamp oil is a combustible hydrocarbon liquid which is derived from petroleum. It is widely used as a fuel in aviation as well as households. Its name derives from Greek: κηρός (keros) meaning "wax", and was registered as a trademark by Canadian geologist and inventor Abraham Gesner in 1854 before evolving into a generic trademark. It is sometimes spelled kerosine in scientific and industrial usage. The term kerosene is common in much of Argentina, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, and the United States, while the term paraffin is used in Chile, eastern Africa, South Africa, Norway, and in the United Kingdom. The term lamp oil, or the equivalent in the local languages, is common in the majority of Asia and the Southeastern United States. Liquid paraffin is a more viscous and highly refined product which is used as a laxative. Paraffin wax is a waxy solid extracted from petroleum.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lighthouse</span> Structure designed to emit light to aid navigation

A lighthouse is a tower, building, or other type of physical structure designed to emit light from a system of lamps and lenses and to serve as a beacon for navigational aid, for maritime pilots at sea or on inland waterways.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Candle</span> Wick embedded in solid flammable substance

A candle is an ignitable wick embedded in wax, or another flammable solid substance such as tallow, that provides light, and in some cases, a fragrance. A candle can also provide heat or a method of keeping time.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Timeline of lighting technology</span>

Artificial lighting technology began to be developed tens of thousands of years ago and continues to be refined in the present day.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kerosene lamp</span> Type of lighting device that uses kerosene as a fuel

A kerosene lamp is a type of lighting device that uses kerosene as a fuel. Kerosene lamps have a wick or mantle as light source, protected by a glass chimney or globe; lamps may be used on a table, or hand-held lanterns may be used for portable lighting. Like oil lamps, they are useful for lighting without electricity, such as in regions without rural electrification, in electrified areas during power outages, at campsites, and on boats. There are three types of kerosene lamp: flat-wick, central-draft, and mantle lamp. Kerosene lanterns meant for portable use have a flat wick and are made in dead-flame, hot-blast, and cold-blast variants.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Oil lamp</span> Object used to produce light continuously for a period of time using an oil-based fuel source

An oil lamp is a lamp used to produce light continuously for a period of time using an oil-based fuel source. The use of oil lamps began thousands of years ago and continues to this day, although their use is less common in modern times. They work in the same way as a candle but with fuel that is liquid at room temperature, so that a container for the oil is required. A textile wick drops down into the oil, and is lit at the end, burning the oil as it is drawn up the wick.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Flashlight</span> Portable hand-held electric light

A flashlight or torch is a portable hand-held electric lamp. Formerly, the light source typically was a miniature incandescent light bulb, but these have been displaced by light-emitting diodes (LEDs) since the mid-2000s. A typical flashlight consists of the light source mounted in a reflector, a transparent cover to protect the light source and reflector, a battery, and a switch, all enclosed in a case.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gas mantle</span> Device for generating bright light when heated by a flame

An incandescent gas mantle, gas mantle or Welsbach mantle is a device for generating incandescent bright white light when heated by a flame. The name refers to its original heat source in gas lights which illuminated the streets of Europe and North America in the late 19th century. Mantle refers to the way it hangs like a cloak above the flame. Gas mantles were also used in portable camping lanterns, pressure lanterns and some oil lamps.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gas lighting</span> Type of artificial light

Gas lighting is the production of artificial light from combustion of a fuel gas such as hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, propane, butane, acetylene, ethylene, coal gas or natural gas. The light is produced either directly by the flame, generally by using special mixes of illuminating gas to increase brightness, or indirectly with other components such as the gas mantle or the limelight, with the gas primarily functioning as a heat source for the incandescence of the gas mantle or lime.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lamplighter</span> Person employed to light and maintain street lights

A lamplighter is a person employed to light and maintain candle or, later, gas street lights. Very few exist today as most gas street lighting has long been replaced by electric lamps.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lampshade</span> Decorative or functional shade placed over the light source of a lamp

A lampshade is a fixture that envelops the lightbulb on a lamp to diffuse the light it emits. Lampshades can be made out of a large variety of materials like paper, glass, fabric or stone. Often times conical or cylindrical in shape, lampshades can be found on floor, desk, tabletop, or suspended lamps. The term can also apply to the glass hung around many designs of ceiling lamp. Beyond its practical purpose, significant emphasis is also usually given to decorative and aesthetic features. A lamp shade also serves to "shade" human eyes from the direct glare of the light bulbs used to illuminate the lamp. Some lamp shades are also lined with a hard-backed opaque lining, often white or gold, to reflect as much light as possible through the top and bottom of the shade while blocking light from emitting through the walls of the shade itself. In other cases, the shade material is deliberately decorative so that upon illumination it may emphasize a display of color and light emitting through the shade surface itself.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Light fixture</span> Electrical device with an electric lamp

A light fixture, light fitting, or luminaire is an electrical device containing an electric lamp that provides illumination. All light fixtures have a fixture body and one or more lamps. The lamps may be in sockets for easy replacement—or, in the case of some LED fixtures, hard-wired in place.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kerosene heater</span> Typically a portable, unvented, kerosene-fueled, space heating device

A kerosene heater, also known as a paraffin heater, is typically a portable, unvented, kerosene-fueled, space heating device. In Japan and other countries, they are a primary source of home heat. In the United States and Australia, they are a supplemental heat or a source of emergency heat during a power outage. Most kerosene heaters produce between 3.3 and 6.8 kilowatts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tilley lamp</span> Pressurized kerosene lamps made by the Tilley company in the UK

The Tilley lamp is a kerosene pressure lamp.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Argand lamp</span> Type of oil lamp

The Argand lamp is a type of oil lamp invented in 1780 by Aimé Argand. Its output is 6 to 10 candelas, brighter than that of earlier lamps. Its more complete combustion of the candle wick and oil than in other lamps required much less frequent trimming of the wick.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Petromax</span>

Petromax is a brand name for a type of pressurised paraffin lamp that uses a mantle. They are as synonymous with the paraffin lamp in Continental Europe as Tilley lamps are in Britain and Coleman lanterns are in the United States.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Solar lamp</span> Lamp powered by one or more solar panels

A solar lamp, also known as a solar light or solar lantern, is a lighting system composed of an LED lamp, solar panels, battery, charge controller and there may also be an inverter. The lamp operates on electricity from batteries, charged through the use of solar panel

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Blowtorch</span> Fuel-burning tool for applying flame and heat for various applications

A blowtorch, also referred to as a blowlamp, is an ambient air fuel-burning gas lamp used for applying flame and heat to various applications, usually metalworking.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Street lighting in Stockholm</span>

Street lighting in Stockholm was a private affair for many centuries. The first known decree regarded lighting in Sweden is from 1697 and concerned Riddarholmen in Stockholm. A royal decree regarding public street lighting was issued in 1749 and asked property owners to keep lanterns lit during the dark months from dusk to midnight, with bright moon nights as an exception. Stockholm was a dark city, especially at night when the street lanterns were extinguished. People avoided walking on the city streets during the nighttime. The public street lighting in Stockholm became a communal task when gas lanterns and later on electrical lamps were introduced during the mid 1800s. The city contributed 97 lanterns which were placed on the city's buildings, on public places, by docks, and bridges.


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