Zippo Lighter 28.02.12

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In the Theogony, Hesiod tells the story of how Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and carried it back to humans on a lit fennel stalk. It's hardly surprising that such methods for toting fire never took off. And yet, before the invention of portable lighters, one had to make do with a string of similarly cumbersome devices.

Thanks to the fantastic glut of chemical experimentation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, we were able to move away from that early staple of fire making – the tinderbox – to portable lighters. It began in 1823, when German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner discovered that platinum could be combined with oxygen to ignite a stream of hydrogen. This discovery led him to combine platinum and hydrogen (generated from zinc and sulphuric acid) in a jar to produce a burst of flame. Dubbed "Döbereiner's lamp", it was the first incarnation of what we now recognise as the modern lighter and remained in production until 1880, when it was ultimately surpassed by the phosphorus match (invented in 1826 by the English chemist John Walker, who refused to patent his matches, claiming that they were better off being left for all people to use freely).

Then, in 1903, Austrian scientist Carl Auer von Welsbach patented ferrocerium, a man-made metallic metal similar to flint. It was the creation of this cheap and practical material that made the Zippo lighter possible. In the middle of the Great Depression, George Blaisdell hit upon the idea of manufacturing portable lighters. The Zippo origin story says that he saw a well-dressed acquaintance fumbling with an unwieldy Austrian model and resolved to create a portable lighter that actually worked. Blaisdell purchased exclusive US rights to Welsbach's invention via an Austrian lighter manufacturer, made a few cosmetic alterations and hiked up the price before releasing it into the US market. Given that the faulty mechanism of the original design remained, the refurbished lighter was a financial flop. But ever the entrepreneur, Blaisdell scrapped the defective model and started again.

First, he reduced the size of the Austrian design in order to make the lighter small enough to fit in the palm of the hand. He then incorporated an external hinge to hold the lid to the bottom, enabling the user to open the lighter with only one hand, and placed a wind hood around the wick to protect the flame. Design done, all that remained was a name. Blaisdell liked the word zipper and played with various configurations until he settled on Zippo. He thought it sounded modern. Zippo was introduced to the market in 1933.

The sleek, industrial design of Zippo lighters has remained virtually unchanged for more than 70 years, and in that time more than 400 million have been sold. Famous for its lifetime guarantee – "it works, or we fix it for free" – as well as its easily customisable casing, the Zippo has become ingrained in contemporary US culture; a product synonymous with the entrepreneurial, go-getting American ethos.

Despite its pop-culture cachet – the Marlboro Man lights his cigarettes with a Zippo, X-Men 2's Pyro sports a customised model and a Zippo saved Harrison Ford and Sean Connery from certain death in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – one thing that Zippos can't contend with is a decrease in use owing to a gradual decline in smoking: Zippo sold 18 million lighters a year in the mid-1990s, compared with 12 million in 2011. In an attempt to combat slowing sales, the company hopes to trade on the success of its brand name to sell watches, clothes and cologne. Who knows? Perhaps in 30 years' time, the Zippo watch will appear on these pages.

 

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Zippo

 

Words

Crystal Bennes

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The sleek, industrial design of Zippo lighters has remained virtually unchanged for more than 70 years

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