In the event of a government shutdown, American History will remain OPEN through at least Saturday, October 7, by using prior year funds. Visit for updates.

Volta’s Electric Lighter

Volta’s Electric Lighter

<< >>
Usage conditions apply
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 gas that bubbles out of 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
date made
early 19th century
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
overall: 18 7/8 in x 9 1/8 in x 9 3/4 in; 47.9425 cm x 23.1775 cm x 24.765 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Physical Sciences
Science & Mathematics
Data Source
National Museum of American History
Nominate this object for photography.   

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.

Note: Comment submission is temporarily unavailable while we make improvements to the site. We apologize for the interruption. If you have a question relating to the museum's collections, please first check our Collections FAQ. If you require a personal response, please use our Contact page.