How Benjamin Franklin's Simple Improvement to Candle Wicks Revolutionized 18th Century Lighting (But Almost No One Knows About It)

Benjamin Franklin was one of the most influential figures of the 18th century. He made significant contributions as a politician, diplomat, scientist and inventor. However, one of his simplest and least known innovations had a major impact on 18th century lighting.

The Problem with Candle Wicks

In the 18th century, candles were the primary source of artificial light. They were made by embedding a wick into a block of tallow (animal fat). When lit, the wick would draw up the melted tallow via capillary action and provide a flame for illumination.

However, regular cotton wicks had a major drawback - they produced a lot of smoke and inefficient combustion. This was because the flames were not hot enough to fully vaporize and burn the fuel being drawn up by the wick. As a result, candles produced a lot of soot and required frequent trimming of the wick.

Franklin's Simple Solution

To address this problem, Benjamin Franklin had a simple but brilliant idea - to change the material used for the wick.

Around 1730-1740, he began promoting the use of wicks made from twisted strands of paper instead of cotton. Paper wicks had much better capillary action, meaning they could draw fuel up to the flame at a faster rate. This provided a larger flame that burned hotter.

The result was that candles with paper wicks burned brighter, cleaner and more efficiently than regular cotton-wicked candles. They produced less smoke, required less frequent trimming of the wick and delivered more light for the same amount of tallow.

The Widespread Adoption of Franklin's Improvement

Franklin heavily promoted paper wicks in his publications like Poor Richard's Almanack. He established his own candle making business to sell candles with paper wicks. This helped create wider awareness and adoption of his innovation.

Within a few decades during the 1700s, the vast majority of candle makers in the American colonies (and later in the United States) switched over to using paper wicks. This simple improvement revolutionized candle making and delivered far superior illumination compared to candles with regular cotton wicks.

In fact, paper wicks continued to be the norm for candles in the United States all the way until the late 1800s. Franklin's innovation had over 100 years of dominance before being displaced by more modern wick materials like braided cotton.

Why This Improvement is Little Known Today

Despite the huge impact Franklin's paper wicks had on candles and artificial lighting for an entire century, it is barely remembered today. There are a few potential reasons for this historical oversight:

Nonetheless, the adoption of paper wicks was a crucial advancement that significantly improved artificial illumination in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a testament to the ingenuity and broad talents of Benjamin Franklin that even a seemingly minor innovation he introduced ended up having a widespread and long-lasting impact.