From a Spark to a Flame

AS A TEN-YEAR-OLD, I found a rusty old Zippo lighter on my father’s workbench, a relic of his service days. When I was that age, if something sparked my curiosity, my first instinct was to take it apart. Imitating my father, I carefully laid out the pieces on the workbench one by one, in the order in which I had removed them, hoping that I could remember how they fit back together.

While removing the flint wheel, and then the steel plate beneath it, I noticed that downward thumb pressure on the wheel forced it to spin while pressing against the plate, generating a spark. The spark, I saw, flew directly into the tip of a piece of rope, the bulk of which was coiled up inside a tank of fuel that composed the main body of the lighter. A spark, a fuse, a tank of flammable liquid—the device that lay disassembled before me, I realized, was nothing less than a miniature bomb.

Even though I have never been a smoker, the simple little device that produces fire—symbol of life and power— is as wondrous to me now as it was then. I am not alone in my obsession. There is an organization of buffs, the Lighter Collector’s International Society, based in Grover City, California. Moreover, an Italian collector, Stefano Bisconcini, has put together a two-inch-thick art book devoted to the subject: Lighters/Accendini. The moon walk, gene splicing, and particle accelerators may be the celebrated monuments to twentieth-century science, but certain humbler monuments are in some ways even more fascinating. A cigarette lighter is a beautiful, efficient machine, a model of unobtrusive intricacy, and as simple and reliable as a paperweight.

The first semi-automatic fire-starting device was the trigger mechanism for the flintlock rifle, invented in the sixteenth century. When pulled, the trigger released a steel hammer, which struck a piece of flint. The spark flew into a small pan primed with gunpowder, which conveyed the flame to the charge.

Eventually the same mechanism was affixed to the sides of boxes or bowls filled with tinder, to make a rudimentary lighter, called a tinder pistol, for tobacco smokers; sometimes real guns were converted for the purpose. Japanese historians point to a device invented in their country in 1772 (two centuries after the arrival of the flintlock) as a typical example. Holding a bowl of tinder—moxa— in one hand, a smoker would turn a keywound spring with the other, thereby cocking a steel hammer. When released, the hammer would fly against a piece of flint attached to the side, showering sparks into the moxa. The result: a small fire.

In the early years of this century lighters came in two varieties. In one the friction between a steel rasp and an alloy of iron and cerium, developed by the Austrian chemist Auer von Welsbach, ignited a miniature kerosene lamp. In the other the lamp was ignited when the trigger struck a tiny fulminating cap—a device invented for the purpose of detonating bombs.

Two hands were required to operate such lighters. After the First World War a German manufacturer began to make lighters designed to be operated with one hand, for veterans who had lost an arm. This design and a refined-oil fuel, benzine, were the makings of the modern lighter.

Early-twentieth-century lighters were difficult to use and unreliable. The wheel had to be turned at just the right speed to produce a spark, and even then there was no guarantee that the spark would light the wick. Smokers carried matches as a backup. Soon, however, what would become the great names in cigarette-lighter manufacture began to enter the market. In England, Beney introduced its first mechanical lighter in 1919, and Dunhill in 1922. In this country, Ronson (originally an art metalworks company directed by a Mr. Aronson, from whose name the company’s was derived) introduced its first lighter in 1919.

The cigarette lighters of today still have two basic parts: the fuel system and the ignition system. The fuel may be either refined oil that travels up a wick or a gas bottled under pressure in liquid form. When the nozzle of the chamber is opened, some of the liquid evaporates and rushes out in the form of a gas jet. But it’s the ignition system that sets one kind of lighter apart from another.

There is the old flint type, of which the Zippo that I dismantled is an example; metallurgists have been continually improving upon von Welsbach’s cerium alloy. A battery lighter uses a miniature transformer to boost the power generated by a small magnesium cell from at most nine volts to approximately 9,000 for a few ten-thousandths of a second, thereby creating a tiny spark across two electrodes to ignite the gas fuel. An integrated-circuit lighter also relies on a battery to create the spark, but the process is controlled by an integrated-circuit “chip" that contains the equivalent of hundreds of conventional electronic parts. A piezoelectric lighter—the kind that you have to squeeze with your hand or push down on hard with your finger— makes use of the fact that if certain kinds of crystals are squeezed in the right way, the alignment of the electrons in the outer orbits of the atoms of the crystal will produce a momentary jolt of tens of thousands of volts of electricity. The phenomenon, called piezoelectricity, was discovered in 1880 by the famous French physicist Pierre Curie and his brother Jacques. During the Second World War, Allied engineers made use of piezoelectricity in aerial bombs; when the nose of the bomb hit the ground, it squeezed a crystal to produce a short electrical charge that detonated the explosive inside. Postwar Japanese companies managed to miniaturize this system and put it in cigarette lighters. The use of piezoelectric ignition devices rather than pilot lights in stoves is a spinoff from lighter technology.

AT THE BEGINNING cigarette lighters were a masculine possession. If a woman used a lighter, she was a feminist and more likely to exist on stage than in real life. For example, Thérèse, the heroine of Francis Poulene’s 1917 opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias, tiring of housework, expresses a desire to flee the kitchen and become, among other things, a soldier, a doctor, a cabinet minister, and a mathematician. She takes what she considers to be the logical first step in that direction by ripping open her blouse, exposing her breasts (“birds of my frailty,”she calls them; onstage they are actually balloons), and igniting them with a briquet—a lighter.

By the thirties and forties cigarettes had become a part of the courtship game. Lighters could serve as pieces in this game only because their machinery was hidden. (Technology, in short, made possible a particular kind of mating game that would have been inconceivable with tinder pistols.) I remember sitting in a movie theater in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, as a teenager, watching the scenes in Now, Voyager in which Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes and passes one to Bette Davis. Well, that was the suavest thing in the world (although I remembered that Raymond Chandler considered placing it in the woman’s mouth to be superior technique). Then again, Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and other heroines of mine often lit their own cigarettes. Their lighters were signs of their independence: they carried their own fire. (Meryl Streep’s lighter in Out of Africa has the same function.)

Variations and perversions of sexual play have been enacted with cigarette lighters. In An American in Paris, Nina Foch pulls out a cigarette and then hands a reluctant Gene Kelly her lighter—a gesture symbolic of entrapment. Farley Granger’s lighter in Strangers on a Train is the MacGuffin —the item around which the entire plot turns. The lighter is inscribed with the first initials of Granger and his lover, Ruth Roman, and embossed with two crossed tennis racquets. It is so intimately Granger’s that when it falls into Robert Walker’s hands, Walker is able to blackmail Granger and even play out a fantasy that the two men are lovers. Walker refuses to light a stranger’s cigarette with the lighter even though he has just lit his own, and he humiliates Roman by having it in his possession.

IN THE 1960s the smoking habits of Americans began to change markedly. Awareness of the health hazards grew, culminating in the surgeon general’s report linking tobacco products to cancer, and federal legislation requiring warning labels on cigarette packages. At the same time that smoking began to lose its glamour, the cigarette lighter became cheap, pedestrian, and sometimes dangerous. The disposable lighter, which the French company Bic introduced here in 1963, used the tried-and-true configuration of flint wheel and butane fuel. Other companies soon followed with similar models. Such lighters were prone to fuel leaks and accidental ignition, and after a number of accidents the American Society for Testing and Materials issued standards to govern their manufacture (the latest fill an eight-page booklet).

Eventually the competition for the market in disposable lighters in this country narrowed to two contenders: Bic, with a sixty-nine-cent model of the same name, and Gillette, with Cricket, priced at seventy cents. Bic won, driving Gillette from the field. Cigarette lighters, once symbols of style and elegance, are now closely associated with a company that is also known for pioneering such humdrum items as disposable pens and razors. (Zippo, the only other company that still manufactures lighters in this country, does not make disposables; its butane lighters run from $29.95 to $59.95, depending on the finish.) Still, even disposables represent what lighter technology is all about. They are simple, effective, and unobtrusive—the perfect mousetrap.

You don’t see many people with good silver or lacquer lighters anymore. I prize the few tobacco stores I know, such as Davidoff, in Geneva, and Nat Sherman, in New York City, that stock a variety of high-quality lighters, from makers such as Dupont and Cartier to Maruman and Yoshinaga, and I continue to seek out the latest invention. At the moment, that is a beam-sensor switch model manufactured by Colibri, whichset me back more than $100; it ignites when your finger trips a laser beam that crosses a C-shaped cavity in the frame.

A revolution in lighter technology is in the offing. Most improvements over the past century have been in the ignition system. However, a Japanese company is on the verge of introducing a lighter with a radically different kind of fuel— hydrogen, the lightest and most plentiful element in the universe. A hydrogen lighter may not look any different to most people—but most people won’t look inside. When mine arrives, the first thing I’ll do is take it apart. □