Vintage Ads: A Little Light Work

The battery-powered light we know as a flashlight earned its name by not working very well.

Ollie Atkins, ©SEPS

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The battery-powered light we know as a flashlight earned its name by not working very well. It was only made possible in 1887 when dry-cell batteries were introduced. They stored electricity with an electrolytic paste, which enabled them, unlike wet-cell batteries, to be moved or turned at any angle. But these early zinc-carbon batteries couldn’t produce a steady current and only provided a brief moment — a “flash” — of light. Hence the name. Even with its limited illumination, the flashlight was infinitely safer than candles and oil lamps. It was also extremely useful, as the New York Police found when several of the new flashlights were donated to the department.

The first modern flashlights were manufactured by Conrad Huber in the early 1900s. (He’d previously sold battery-lighted scarf pins, light-up neckties, and an illuminated flowerpot.) He improved their battery power and switched to a brighter bulb. And in 1905, he renamed his business The American Ever Ready Company.

The company promoted its flashlight as “the light that does not flicker in a draft, extinguish in the wind, and is controlled instantly by finger pressure.” By the 1920s, flashlights could be found in 10 million homes.

This article is featured in the November/December 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening PostSubscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. Before this feature, I never gave the word ‘flashlight’ any thought to its origin. Probably would have guessed it meant you could turn it on in a flash, and or have light in a flash/instantly. It’s impressive there were flashlights at all in 1887, and it was just a matter of perfecting and refining it from that point forward. Great art Eveready ad of Santa getting busted. (Not nice of the boy though, actually).

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