From Reality to Fantasy (Part 8): Dobereiner’s Cigar Lighter

It doesn’t get much wackier than this when it comes to mad science and 19th century ingenuity. I’ve written before about matches, but why light your cigar with primitive matches or an ember from the fireplace when you can use an elaborate chemical contraption — and hydrogen gas!

Hamburg Museum 2010-1207-217Döbereiner_fire_gadget

Basically, sulfuric acid and zinc are reacted inside to create hydrogen gas. When opening the valve, the hydrogen gas shoots out and hits a platinum sponge catalyst, causing the hydrogen stream to heat up and ignite. This can be used to light a stick of wood, a candle, a cigar, etc.

This ingenious, though perhaps very dangerous, device was invented in 1823, before widespread use of matches. According to a paper on the subject there were 20,000 of these in use in Germany and Britain alone. In 1856 you could buy one in America for $2-$4, depending on the size you wanted.

Yet I bet you hadn’t heard of it. Why did I never learn this in history class … or chemistry class? I answer myself that we were all too busy learning BORING stuff, like how to memorize dates. Or maybe they thought we’d try it for ourselves if we feasibly could. I have not been able to find any source that clearly states how much use you could get out of one fill of sulfuric acid and one block of zinc. It would have depended on the size of the device. But obviously given how popular it was, it was economical. When the valve is closed, more hydrogen gas is generated by the well-designed layout of the chambers. Check out the video above for a detailed explanation. You can also see the Wikipedia article. Also Harvard University has a specimen in their collection, which you can see on this Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments page.

Now let me restate why Victorian fantasy is my hobby horse. You can’t get this kind of sophistication in pre-industrial fantasy worlds. Magic is often substituted for technology to give more civilized infrastructure and capabilities to medieval cultures. Not to mention an appearance of modern scholarship. But, tell me, is it ever this believably complex or charming? What is really more amazing? Enchanted floating stones that bear people around, or those early Victorian elevators? Words and spell tomes that produce fire in a world where you’d otherwise have to rub sticks together, or Dobereiner’s lamp? History is just the gift that keeps on giving. Maybe I’m lacking creativity with all this research, but not everyone can be Jules Verne. In fact, Verne routinely just extrapolated on and combined real existing technologies from his day, from scuba gear and air guns to miner’s gas discharge lights. He followed the technology of his day and saw its potential. I would never have thought of a cooler or more whimsical way for a character to light a cigar on my own. I would never have thought of using a jet of hydrogen gas, catalyzed by platinum, all from a device that is simple and 100% practical.


Keep checking this blog for more about how nonfiction can improve your fiction.

-Bradley Verdell


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