The first kerosene lamp was described by al-Razi (Rhazes) in 9th century Baghdad, who referred to it as the "naffatah" in his Kitab al-Asrar (Book of Secrets). A more modern kerosene lamp was later constructed by Polish inventor Ignacy Łukasiewicz in 1853.
When the top part of wick is lit, the kerosene which has been absorbed in the wick burns and produces a yellowy flame. As the kerosene burns, capillary action inside the wick draws more kerosene up from the fuel tank to be burned.
On this type of lamp, the size of the flame can be controlled by adjusting how much of the wick extends out of the top of the fuel tank. This is usually done by means of a small knob that operates a toothed metal disk that bears against the wick like a sprocket wheel known as a cric. If the wick is turned up too high the lamp will produce smoke (unburned carbon soot).
The flame is usually protected by some kind of glass screen, shade, or globe. The glass acts to prevent the flame from being blown out, to prevent the flame from being an excessive fire hazard, and also to enhance the thermally-induced draft. The draft carries more air (oxygen) past the flame, helping to produce a brighter light than would be produced by an open flame. Wick lamps can also be quite smelly if they are not burning well. Often this is caused by using improper or contaminated fuel.
Barn lamps (or lanterns) have several design variations. The earliest lanterns used the dead flame design where the flame was fed fresh air from beneath and warm air expelled above. Because this design does not feed air directly, this type of lamp produces only a dim yellow light and is not much brighter than a candle. Most Aladdin style lamps are dead flame.
Tubular lamps were invented in the later part of the 19th century when, in the late 1860s, Dietz Lantern designed the 'hot blast' lantern which recirculated a mix of fresh and warm air back to the flame through side tubes thus improving oil burning efficiency. By 1880 the 'cold blast' lantern was designed using a similar circulation system, but with only fresh air to increase the brightness of the flame. Cold blast lanterns are the brightest and most efficient of all wick lamp designs. Except for decorative purposes, emergency lighting, or in remote areas without electricity, kerosene lamps are rarely used today in countries with a developed national grid for electricity and natural gas but were popular before electrical lighting became widespread. In many countries today kerosene lighting and stoves fueled by kerosene are still in regular use; due especially to the relatively cheap cost of the fuel. They were first used by Abraham Gesner's Kerosene Gaslight Company in 1850 and replaced the Argand lamp which had been in widespread use for seventy years.
A mantle lamp is considerably brighter than a conventional wick lamp, and often a lamp shade is desirable. They also consume much more fuel than other lamps and produce massive amounts of heat. A few operating mantle lamps can function to heat small buildings in cold weather.
Mantle lamps, because of the higher temperature at which they operate, do not produce much of an odor except when they are first ignited or extinguished. Like conventional wick lamps, they can be adjusted for brightness, and can also be adjusted too high, which will cause the lamp chimney and the mantle to soot up.
If a too-high adjusted lamp is caught quickly, it can simply be adjusted down and the small amount of soot on the mantle will soon be burned off. If it is not caught quickly enough, a "runaway lamp" condition can result.
A runaway lamp condition, with flames coming out of the top of the chimney can be dangerous and difficult to extinguish by blowing out in the normal fashion. Runaway lamp condition should be avoided if at all possible as it can crack the expensive (and fragile) Pyrex glass chimney, irreversibly soot up the mantle, and release large amounts of soot into the room. The best way to extinguish a runaway lamp is by covering the top with a non-flammable object such as an empty steel can.
Once the runaway lamp has been extinguished and allowed to cool, the chimney can be cleaned with soap and water. A badly sooted up chimney may require the use of lye or oven cleaner. The mantle, if still intact, can often be salvaged by removing it from the burner and heating it in the flame of a blow-torch, propane torch, or a gas stove burner. This can be a difficult procedure and may result in breaking the mantle. As mantles are expensive, it is worth the effort to try, however.
Mantle lamps are still made by the Aladdin Mantle Lamp Company in the United States.
This type of lamp is far more sophisticated than a wick lamp and produces a much brighter light, although they can be quite complicated and fiddly to use. This type of lamp is commonly known in the UK as a "Tilley lamp" after a manufacturer of the same name, and in North America as a Coleman lamp for similar reasons. A pressure lamp has a fuel tank at the bottom with a small pump to pressurise the kerosene. There is a narrow gap up to the top of the lamp called a flue, and at the top of the lamp there is a burner (gas outlet). Directly underneath the burner is the mantle, a fabric bag coated with chemicals which incandesce (glow brightly) when heated by the gas flame.
To work a pressure lamp the kerosene needs to be heated to the point where it is vaporised. This is necessary because vaporised kerosene burns much hotter than liquid kerosene.
The kerosene burner has to be heated by means of a primer, usually methylated spirit, which is burnt in a small tray underneath the burner to heat it. The kerosene in the tank is then forced into the burner, which is done by pumping up the air pressure in the fuel tank. This causes the kerosene to be forced upwards through the flue.
After the primer has stopped burning, the flames from the primer should have got the burner hot enough to vaporise the kerosene. When a valve is opened the pressurised kerosene is forced into the hot burner where it is vaporised. This kerosene vapour is then directed downwards into the mantle where it burns hot enough to make the mantle glow and produce a bright white light. The heat from the burning vapour in turn vaporises the liquid kerosene which is being forced into the burner. If the mantle is visibly damaged, heat may become focused and damage the glass surround(windshield). After the first burning of a new mantle, the size of the mantle will reduce significantly, and the mantle will become more fragile.
This type of lamp is popular amongst campers and people who like outdoor activities. Gasoline-burning lamps have also been produced; these do not require any primer liquid. However, both have lost out in popularity in recent years to portable lamps which burn butane or propane gas as these are easier to use, although more expensive to run. In the United States, the Coleman Company is perhaps the most famous producer of all four types of lamps.
There are portable kerosene stoves which work in much the same way as pressure lamps.
Pure paraffin oil is marketed as the cleanest burning fuel, suitable for wick lamps used indoors. It is often sold in the candle section of many supermarkets. However, due to economies of scale and additional refining necessary this fuel is one of the most expensive. Pure paraffin oil can solidify in environments below room temperature, limiting its suitability for outdoor or emergency use. Some antique lamp enthusiasts do not recommend the use of this oil as the ignition temperature is higher than regular lamp oil or kerosene and may result in damage to the lamp. The flame produced by paraffin oil is not as bright as with other fuels. Although the fuel itself is odorless, poorly designed, maintained or adjusted lamps will still emit noxious fumes. Drug store mineral oil is paraffin oil.
Generic lamp oil is also widely available in supermarkets. It is usually less expensive than pure paraffin oil, but costs more than kerosene. Lamp oil burns cleaner and with less odor than kerosene.
1-K Kerosene is more easily available in bulk than lamp oil in most countries and is typically much cheaper. However, kerosene contains more impurities such as sulfur and aromatic hydrocarbons than lamp oil. Kerosene obtained from filling stations is more likely to be contaminated with water than kerosene obtained in prepackaged containers. The odors produced by burning kerosene in wick lamps can be quite objectionable indoors.
Kerosene substitutes certified by manufacturers to meet the technical specifications of 1-K kerosene such as Kleen-Heat also work in wick lamps. These products are often sold in hardware stores during the heating season.
Biodiesel Is a clean burning "green" alternative to kerosene. Biodiesel packaged for lamp burning is best purchased to avoid biodiesel / diesel mixtures available at the majority of biodiesel gas pumps.
Citronella oil can be burned in wick lamps outdoors. However, the lamp may produce some smoke and soot. The residue from burning citronella oil is difficult to remove, so it is not recommended for use in a valued lamp.
Sometimes dyes and fragrances are added to fuels which can increase soot deposits on glass globes/chimneys, and reduce wick life. Some manufactures have even created special novelty formulations that will cause the flame to burn a different color.
Mineral spirits can be used, but only with great caution. Formulations containing chemicals other than mineral spirits may be highly flammable or explosive.
Diesel Fuel and home heating oil can be burned in conventional wick lamps/lanterns in an emergency if the lamp is to be used outdoors. Diesel fuels often contain fuel additives that produce toxic by-products when burned in a lamp. Most Diesel fuels have a fairly high sulfur content as well. They also produce more soot than kerosene. #1 Diesel is preferable to #2 diesel in such circumstances.
Charcoal lighter fluid usually is suitable for wick lamps/lanterns; most brands are kerosene. Be certain however to use only the type intended for starting charcoal briquettes. The lighter fluid intended for cigarette lighters is naphtha, which is highly flammable and dangerous in a wick lamp.
Jet fuel. Commercial jet fuels are basically kerosene with antioxidants, corrosion-inhibitors and anti-static agents added. Like Diesel, commercial Jet-A is relatively safe to use in an emergency, but other grades, particularly military grades, may contain toxic additives and should not be used.