Volta’s Electric Lighter

This device created light by means of an electric spark and some hydrogen gas. While devices of this sort have been referred to in various ways, historians term them Volta’s electric lighters. The reference is to Alessandro Volta (1745–1827), the Italian physicist who, in the late 1770s, noticed that electric sparks would ignite the bubbly gas found around swamps that we know as methane, as well as the flammable air that we know as hydrogen.
In order to operate this device, one fills the lower glass reservoir with a dilute acid. When this acid comes in contact with the zinc in the lower glass reservoir, hydrogen is produced. Pressure from water in the upper reservoir forces some of this hydrogen through a small aperture at the side. Opening the cock in this aperture allows some hydrogen to escape, and raises a silk thread that activates the electrophorus in the base. The resulting spark ignites the hydrogen, and this in turn lights a candle in the brass holder mounted on the base.
Robert Hare (1781–1858) showed an instrument of this sort to his chemistry classes in the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania, describing it as an “Application of an Electrophorus to the ignition of hydrogen gas, generated in a self-regulating reservoir.” In 1848, soon after he retired from teaching, Hare gave his apparatus to the Smithsonian. This example may be from that donation.
Ref: Paolo Brenni, “Volta’s Electric Lighter and its Improvements. The Birth, Life and Death of a Peculiar Scientific Apparatus Which Became the First Electric Household Appliance,” in Marco Beretta, et. al., eds., Musa Musaei. Studies on Scientific Instruments and Collections in Honour of Mara Miniati (Florence, 2003), pp. 371-394.
Robert Hare, A Compendium of the Course of Chemical Instruction in the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1828), pp. 65–66.
Currently not on view
Object Name
lamp, electropneumatic
Hare, Robert
Physical Description
glass (overall material)
wood (overall material)
overall: 14 in x 9 in x 9 in; 35.56 cm x 22.86 cm x 22.86 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Science & Mathematics
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Physical Sciences
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

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