Mankind discovered the amazing qualities of flint long before written history. The introduction of steel to what became known as the tinder box brought ready flame for quick use. People became adept at sparking dried tinder to start fires, but ingenuity lead to quicker and more practical means to achieve the same end.
In the musket or pistol, a spark produced by a steel mechanism strikes the sharpened edge of a flint and sets off a spark, which ignites the gunpowder. No one had any thought that the same mechanism could have other applications beyond firearms until the late 16th century. Military technology could be applied to peaceful use. Therefore, by the late 1600’s, flint lighters were the rave of taverns and wealthy estates. Their use became so popular and cost to produce reduced that, by the 1700’s, they could be found in use by commoners.
The adaptation of invention from military to civilian use; that is, finding household uses for products made for war has been advancing technologies for decades. The microwave oven, a by-product of military research, is just one modern day example.
Thus, around the turn of the seventeenth century, it was the arms manufacturers who discovered another use for old discarded musket parts and pistols. Skilled master craftsmen converted broken firearms into interesting tools for making fire.
In the earliest prototypes, tinder was put into the barrel of a pistol. The spark from the flint mechanism ignited the slender strips of pulp wood and dried tinder or fluff (hemp and dried weed) instead of gunpowder. When lit, it looked more like a portable torch than a lighter. It was neither convenient to use nor reliable. The tinder could never be relied upon to light the first time. The fuel in tinder boxes had to be coaxed to a flame by blowing into it.
Though limited, these early pistol lighters were in steady demand. Manufacturers of firearms continued to retool their discarded firelocks into lighters. Over the years, arms craftsmen tinkered with these lighters making them less heavy, smaller and most importantly, more efficient and reliable. Almost all retained the flintlock firearm mechanism and pistol grip, including the original trigger.
The basic mechanism worked as follows: a hammer is pulled back by use of a spring. When cocked or locked in place, it is released by a trigger above the stock or handle. The sharp edge of the flint shears off tiny particles of steel from the frizzen, which slides down onto the open tinderbox, thereby igniting the tinder or fuel within. Craftsmen added a candle holder for convenience. Once the flame was made in the catch box, the candle was removed from the holder and the wick was held over the flame. Once lit, the candle was put back in the holder. That candle would then light other candles, pipes, fireplace, oven, etc.
Most stocks of these lighters were made of walnut, oak, maple, chestnut, or cherry with occasional other hard woods. Sizes varied depending on the craftsman’s conversion pistols. Most prominent firearms manufacturers produced these lighters, though Henry Knock and Dunhill Tinder pistols may be the predominant marks found in modern auctions.
The lighters were in common use until the advent of the match or ‘lucifers’ (after the devil) became available. The modern self igniting match was invented in 1805 by Jean Chancel. The friction match was invented in 1826 by an English Chemist, John Walker. Not until 1849 did Heurtner conceive of matches, marketed to light cigars. They used niter, charcoal and wood dust. The head was made of phosphorous. They had to be dipped in an asbestos bottle of sulfuric acid prior to lighting. Fifty matches plus acid sold for a shilling.
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Lenk, Torsten; translation by G. A. Urquhart, Edited by J.F. Hayward. The Flintlock, It’s Orgin, Development, and Use. 1939: Publ. in Sweeden. 2007: Skyhorse Publishing Inc., New York, NY.
Volo, James M. & Volo, Dorothy Denneen. Daily Life on the Old Colonial Frontier. 2002: Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.