The lantern is a staple of camping trips, outdoor décor, and various celebrations. It has a bright place in our lives, but you probably haven’t given too much thought to its fascinating history.
Who invented the lantern? What was it originally used for? Let’s illuminate the path from traditional Chinese paper lanterns all the way to the electrical models used today!
The first evidence of lanterns can be found in ancient China during the Han Dynasty.
1700s – early 1800s
Sailors used lanterns lit with whale oil on their sea voyages. These were mounted on support beams called gimbals and made from durable metals like copper, brass, tin, pewter, or iron.
Paul Revere carried one of the most famous lanterns of all the time when he made his famous ride in Boston. Today, the lantern is still able to be viewed at the Concord Museum in Massachusetts.
William Murdoch, an engineer from London, pioneered the use of coal gas for lighting. His gas lamps were used to illuminate a cotton mill in Manchester, paving the way for the future of lanterns.
The first streetlamp was lit in Pall Mall, London. This lantern ran on gas and was only able to illuminate a few feet around the post, keeping the streets still fairly dark at night.
The railroad boom was underway in the United States. These lanterns were used by workers as signaling devices and also in the cars as light sources for passengers.
Ignacy Lukasiewicz built the first kerosene lamps and patented the flat wick burner. At the time, he was working in Poland as a pharmacist but was fascinated by the possibilities of petroleum.
From the late 18th century to the start of the Civil War, Harriet Tubman led slaves to their freedom through the Underground Railroad. A lantern served as a powerful symbol during this dangerous journey.
John H. Irwin created a coil oil lamp. Kerosene had a high risk for fires, but this lamp could be burned indoors and was used by factory workers, restaurants, theaters, museums, and shops.
Thomas Edison changed lighting forever with the invention of the lightbulb. Now lanterns could run on bulbs instead of oil, which generally made them a lot safer to use.
Police officers in the late 19th century carried small lanterns around as they fought crime. This was the case until the flashlight was invented in 1899.
The Coleman Company was started in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. The founder was fascinated by the steady white light emitted by lanterns and immediately started selling them in his store.
The lantern’s design was changed yet again with the invention of light-emitting diodes or LEDs. These extra bright bulbs were developed by Nick Holonyak, Jr., an employee at General Electric.
Stanford students Amit Chugh and Matthew Scott designed an eco-friendly solar-powered lantern called the MightyLight. To date, over 150,000 of these lanterns have been sold in 18 countries.
Luci is a solar-powered lantern invented by a former United Nations employee named Jill Van den Brule. The light, which only weighs 4.5 ounces, is sent to poverty-stricken villages and towns where there’s no electricity.
Even though we have lamps and lightbulbs, we still love an old-fashioned lantern. The Delaware Nation Council holds a lantern tour every year where they show off the most historic cemeteries in Dover.
Who Invented the Oil Lantern?
Lanterns have roots in ancient Egypt, Greece, and China. The modern version, however, is often credited to John H. Irwin, an American inventor with over 200 patents to his name. He invented the oil lantern in 1862.
Irwin’s use of coil oil, which relied on coal, greatly changed how well the lantern functioned. Before then, the materials used to light the lanterns weren’t exactly ethical or practical. The progression can be seen below.
The whale oil had to be taken from the blubber of whales, while the kerosene lantern, invented by Ignacy Lukasiewicz in 1853, could easily start a fire when used indoors. Irwin’s use of coal revolutionized the lantern’s design and made it safer and easier to use than ever before.
Nowadays, we often rely on electrical lanterns that work via LED or incandescent bulbs. The original oil lantern, though, is still widely popular and a favorite among those who are often in the great outdoors.
When Were Lanterns First Sold in Stores?
The first commercial use of lanterns most likely came at the start of the 19th century. W.C. Coleman was an American businessman and politician with a love for the great outdoors. He started his company, Coleman, in Oklahoma and immediately began selling lanterns in his store.
By 1914, Coleman had exclusive branded lanterns on shelves. These were so successful they were declared the official lamp for World War I. The U.S. government even gave Coleman enough money and resources to make over one million of their lanterns for American farmers. The momentum hasn’t slowed down since, and to date, more than 50 million Coleman lanterns have been sold in over 100 countries around the world!
Our camping adventures, hiking trips, and mountain expeditions wouldn’t be the same without Coleman. The company is still going strong today and is also well-known for their coolers, grills, tents, and wide selection of outdoor equipment.
What is the Lantern Festival?
The Lantern Festival takes place at the end of the Chinese New Year and is celebrated throughout Asia. The idea behind the fest is for people to write their wishes on paper lanterns and send them up into the night sky.
The paper lanterns are inspired by the original versions used by the Han Dynasty. Traditionally, the lanterns at the festival feature some kind of nature motif, but they can also look like anything imaginable, from fire-breathing dragons and sea creatures, to pop stars and cartoon characters.
The festival is so popular that it’s also been adopted by other countries. In fact, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Chicago are just a few of the cities in the United States that have held lantern festivals.
How Are Lanterns Decorated?
Traditional Chinese lanterns are made with painting, paper cutting, and embroidery. Skilled artists put these high-flying decorations together and prepare them for annual festivals and celebrations.
Custom lanterns like those you’d get from a promotional products company can also be decorated, but this works a bit differently. The logo or text is added to the lantern via screen or pad printing, which involve computers and mechanized machines to transfer the ink to the product.
The end result is something stylish you can use in a variety of situations. These decorative lanterns make stylish and memorable trade show giveaways, fundraiser gifts, and even wedding favors!
Why Are Lanterns Important?
A lantern provides easy, portable light in a variety of situations, like camping, cave exploring, or sailing. It can also be used as beautiful décor, elegant wedding favors, and even a bright spot of hope in the darkest circumstances.
Take for instance the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, a non-profit in operation for over 60 years. They use custom lanterns every year at their Light the Night event. This fundraiser helps spread their powerful message, gain new volunteers, and get donations that go toward research and support.
The Bottom Line
A lantern has a historic charm that we still love even to this day. Technology may always be improving, but there’s something special about going outside with an old-fashioned lantern by our side.
Pettiford, R. (2017). Lantern Festival. Published by Bullfrog Books: Minneapolis, MN.
History of Lamps. (2019). History of Lanterns – Who Invented Lantern? Retrieved July 15, 2019, from
History of Lamps. (2019). History of Paper Lanterns – Who Invented Paper Lanterns? Retrieved July 15, 2019, from
Top China Travel. (2019). Chinese Lantern. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from
The Victorian Emporium. (2011, May 30). History of Lighting. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from
Antique Lamp Supply. (2019). History of Kerosene Oil Lamps. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from
Collector’s Weekly. (2019). Ship Lanterns and Lamps. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from
Coleman. (2019). Coleman® Company History. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from
Funding Universe. (2019). The Coleman Company, Inc. History. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from
Encyclopedia.com. (2004). Lukasiewicz, I. Retrieved July 16, 2019, from
National Museum of American History. (2019). Irwin’s Oil Lamp Patent Model. Retrieved July 16, 2019, from
U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva. (2011, May 11). $25 Solar Lamp Invented by Stanford Student Brightens Life for Millions in India. Retrieved July 16, 2019, from
Encyclopedia Britannica. (2019). William Murdoch. Retrieved July 16, 2019, from
History Channel. (2009, October 29). Underground Railroad. Retrieved July 16, 2019, from
Rose, D. (2015, January 23). Flashback: The History of Seattle Police Officers’ Lifesaving Lanterns. Retrieved July 16, 2019, from