Let There Be Light

One thing leads to another when I write. One minute I’m focused on the topic at hand. The next thing you know, I’m scurrying down a research rabbit hole.

Earlier this week I was working on an article about a very minor (but quite delightful) artist named named Maurice Busset (1879-1936) who created a portfolio of woodblock prints about the German bombardment of Paris in 1918.* Looking at a print in which citizens of Paris scurry through the night to take shelter in an underground Metro station I suddenly thought, wait a minute: are those flashlights? In 1918?** And I was off.

In fact, it turns out that flashlights were a very real possibility in 1918.

As is so often the case, one innovation rested on another. In the case of the flashlight, it turns out that the necessary first step was the invention of the dry cell battery in 1887–something that had not occurred to me as a limiting factor until I dug in. The flashlight quickly followed. The first flashlights, produced by the American Electrical Novelty and Manufacturing Company*** in 1899 under the name Ever Ready, were expensive novelties, no doubt purchased by the nineteenth century equivalent of the people who stood in line to buy the first iPhones. In fact, they were called “flash” lights because neither the battery or the bulb was reliable. The idea that they were “Ever Ready” was wishful thinking on the part of the sales department.

With the invention of a new type of light bulb and better batteries in 1904, flashlights became cheaper and more reliable. By the early 1920s, there were more than 10 million flashlights in circulation.

Next question?

*Coming to a future issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History–a very good magazine if you are interested in military history, widely defined.

**I did not wonder about the Metro station because I knew that the first subway was dug in London in the mid- nineteenth century and I assumed that Paris was not far behind. In fact, it turns out that the Paris Metro was built in 1900.

***Which ultimately became Energizer. Not surprising since it turns out that batteries are a crucial part of this story.

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