oil lamp

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Red sandstone oil lamp found near the well in the Lascaux Cave , approx. 17,000 years old (15,000 BC)
Simple Roman lamp
Oil lamp at the Indian Diwali festival

Oil lamps are lighting fixtures that use oils as fuel. They were an important artificial light source for millennia .


The first lamps were flat stone bowls filled with animal fat, which had a small groove for the wick on the edge . The wicks initially consisted only of plant fibers, later also from scraps of fabric. Such bowl lamps were used in certain regions around 10,000 years ago.

Early oil lamps

Ancient Roman oil lamp with a gladiator motif

For many centuries, this type of lamp hardly developed any further, even if different fuels and housing shapes made of clay and stone appeared. A significant improvement was made possible through the use of vegetable oils . Now the bowls could be covered and thus protected from contamination.

Oil lamps became a mass product among the Romans. Clay lamps are much more often preserved than those made of metal, because on the one hand they were cheaper and on the other hand defective metal copies could be melted down. Two-part forms, so-called models , were mostly used to manufacture the pieces from clay . Some lamp manufacturers stamped their names on the bottoms of the products; these pieces are called company lamps . Many Roman oil lamps were decorated; the area of ​​the top where the motif is attached is called the mirror. The hole for filling in the oil is usually also located here. The wick was pushed into the front extension of the lamp, the so-called snout.

Trankrüsel , oil lamp or Walratlampe of 18/19. Century. Photographed in the Dithmarscher Landesmuseum Meldorf, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Sheet iron with cotton wick.

The fuels used ( grease , tallow , Tran , oil ) are thick, so it only a few millimeters to a few centimeters in the wick can rise above. If the fuel runs out, part of the wick burns up.

Oil lamps are older than candles . There are no references to candles until the 1st century AD. But even centuries later candles were still more expensive than oil lamps. Because the trade in olive oil declined in the Middle Ages , pine shavings , torches and tallow candles were preferred in the countries north of the Alps . Candles were often used in the sacred area.

After entire rows of houses burned down in many villages, strict regulations were issued in the 18th century under Count Palatine Karl IV to prevent a fire , which also regulated the use of lamps and lanterns in accordance with regulations.

In Tibetan Buddhist temples, butter lamps ( Tibetan dkar me ) that burn yak butter are used for religious ceremonies.

Modern developments

In the early modern times, technical solutions were found to further develop the oil lamps. The first striking innovation was the gimbal-mounted oil lamp (cardan lamp). In the 18th century, models appeared with new wick shapes, for example wide ribbon wicks. Hand pump lamps were modeled on the candle sticks.

The safety standard for decorative oil lamps EN 14059 (in Germany DIN EU 14059) has been in force in Europe since 2003, specifying requirements for their properties in order to reduce the dangers when handling lamp oil in particular. Since then, oil lamps sold in Europe have had to be appropriately marked, break-proof and leak-proof and they must not attract children.

Argand burner

"The elegant reader" of the Biedermeier reads in the bright glow of the argand burner
Drawing of an Argand study lamp

The biggest step on the way to a brighter burning oil lamp was made by Aimé Argand , a Swiss living in France, who introduced a lamp around 1783 whose burner was constructed from a metal cylinder with a double wall. A round cotton wick was fixed in the hollow wall with a fuel supply through a separate tank. The inner cylinder was open at the bottom so that air could get through to the inside of the wick. Argand also placed a sheet metal cylinder over the flame in order to get a higher draft through the chimney effect. The sheet metal cylinder was replaced by a glass cylinder in 1784. The Argand burner was used for almost all later oil lamps ( clockwork lamps , moderator lamps ) and the kerosene lamps .

The traditional oil lamps disappeared almost everywhere in Europe and North America after the introduction of the kerosene lamp around the middle of the 19th century. In other cultural areas, they remained widespread well into the 20th century and are still considered indispensable attributes in certain ritual contexts.

In general usage, the term oil lamp quickly passed from the conventional lamp types operated with vegetable oil to petroleum lamps. The term for the device remained while the fuel was replaced.

Oil clock

From the 16th century, glass oil lamps were provided with markings to measure time. The level of the remaining oil showed the time that had passed. Oil clocks belong to the elementary clocks and are colloquially referred to as time lamps .

The oil clock should not be confused with the clockworks that were used in some oil lamps to pump the oil from the container to the wick.


  • The “magic lamp” in the story of Aladdin in the tales of the Arabian Nights is considered to be the magic agent .
  • In the biblical context, oil lamps appear in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins .
  • Tranfunzel describes a weak lamp or a weak light source. Occasionally, slow and mentally cumbersome people are colloquially disparagingly referred to as "Tranfunzel".

See also


  • Annette Kirsch: Antique lamps in the Landesmuseum Mainz . von Zabern, Mainz 2002, ISBN 3-8053-2864-8 .
  • Karin Goethert: Roman lamps and candlesticks. Selection catalog of the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier (= publication series of the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier. No. 14). Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier 1997, ISBN 3-923319-38-X .

Web links

Commons : Argand lamps  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Oil lamp  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Franz-Josef Sehr : The fire extinguishing system in Obertiefenbach from earlier times . In: Yearbook for the Limburg-Weilburg district 1994 . The district committee of the district of Limburg-Weilburg, Limburg 1993, p. 151-153 .
  2. Franz Siglmüller: joy and sorrow with decorative oil lamps. Bavarian State Ministry for the Environment and Consumer Protection
  3. Reinhard Meis : The old clock. History, technology, style. A manual for collectors and enthusiasts (= library for lovers of art and antiques. Vol. 53). Volume 1. Klinkhardt & Biermann, Braunschweig 1978, ISBN 3-7814-0116-2 , p. 82 ff.
  4. Entry at duden.de