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lamp

lamp, originally a vessel for holding oil or some combustible substance that could be burned through a wick for illumination; the term has been extended to other lighting devices. Stones, shells, and other objects of suitable shape were used for burning oil in the Paleolithic period. In Egypt and the Middle East saucerlike terra-cotta lamps were early known. In Greece torches were supplemented in the 6th cent. B.C. with pottery and metal lamps. The Greeks often used a cylindrical spout for the wick. The Romans used a superior closed type of lamp, often with multiple spouts. The float-wick lamp, in which the wick is supported above the oil, was probably of Egyptian origin; it survived in the West chiefly as a sanctuary lamp. The seven-branched candlestick of the Hebrews is believed to have been a support for a group of float-wick lamps. Its symbolical descendant is the eight-branched Hanukkah lamp, usually of the spouted saucer type. There was little improvement in the design of lamps from ancient times to the 18th cent. The Betty lamp of the North American colonists and pioneers was a spouted saucer lamp with a lid. Lamps were smoky because the center of the round wick received too little air for complete combustion. Flat wicks, introduced late in the 18th cent., made less smoke, but the light was somewhat dim. At about the same time a circular wick with an open center was invented by Aimé Argand, a Swiss chemist, who also introduced the glass lamp chimney. One- and two-burner lamps were common from the late 18th cent., and these often burned whale oil. Kerosene, used from the mid-19th cent., almost entirely superseded other oils for lamps; the kerosene lamp is still used for lighting where gas and electricity (the most common form of energy for lamps in industrialized countries) are not available and in many safety, signal, and hurricane lamps. In literature and art the lamp has often symbolized learning or knowledge; in religious ritual, honor to the divine. For the development of the electric lamp, see lighting.

See F. W. Robins, The Story of the Lamp (1939, repr. 1970); T. Szentléky, Ancient Lamps (tr. 1969); J. Paton, Lamps: A Collector's Guide (1979).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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