Sunday, 16 October 2011

A bendy wick

As the days get shorter and the lights have to be switched on earlier and earlier, I'm reminded of the way our ancestors had to light their homes before gas and electricity. One invention which must have made a difference was the self-trimming candle wick we still use today. We'll probably need to make more use of it if Huhne has his way.

Early candle wicks were made from stranded cotton or hemp and as the candle burned, the length of burned wick, or snuff, became longer and longer. The snuff had to be kept trimmed to the right length or the flame became bigger and bigger, causing the wax to run as well as using up the candle too quickly. Soft tallow candles were particularly prone to this problem if they weren't trimmed regularly, quite apart from the smoke and the smell.

Ancient wicks made from the peeled core of a rush didn't suffer from this problem. As they burned, they bent over into the edge of the flame where there was enough oxygen to burn off excess wick. In 1820, a Frenchman named Cambacérés discovered that a plaited cotton wick behaves in exactly the same way - as in the picture. The plaited wick curves over as it burns so excess wick is automatically burnt away.

So the self-trimming wick was invented, candle snuffers became obsolete and another little convenience made a difference to millions of people.

As an aside, there is a type of fungus xylaria hypoxylon, with the common name candle snuff . You can find it growing on dead wood. Presumably it acquired the name when real candle snuff was a more familiar sight than it is now.


Demetrius said...

The BBC4 series on Electricity has been fascinating. I recall a Ray Bradbury story about what happens if electricity suddenly ends. Could we readjust to candles?

A K Haart said...

I suppose we could readjust to candles, but not easily. And what would be make them from?

David Duff said...

The difficulties of the pre-electric light age were emphasised to me by a visit to a reconstituted New England village in which a considerable number of old buildings, cottages, school-houses, barns and the like had been uprooted and placed round a lake and opened as a 'living' museum. The candle-maker's house was fascinating and one trick of the trade which impressed me was to surround the back and part of the sides of the candle-holder with faceted, mirrored glass or polished metal so that the flame was multiplied several times in their reflection.

I would never have thought of that in a hundred years! But then again, if Man had waited for my ancester to invent fire we would all have frozen eons ago!

A K Haart said...

DD - yes, the history of candles is surprisingly interesting. Cheap light reflectors were often just sheets of metal plated with tin.

The problem with reflecting candle light is that the heat is also reflected, causing the candle to soften. Ways were devised to tackle the problem, but gas-light put paid to further ingenuity.

James Higham said...

I have one light, one of the new type bulbs, as a lamp and it's on a timer. when it goes off, that's the end of whatever I was doing. After a while, it becomes second nature.

A K Haart said...

JH - does the timer use a significant wattage?