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When Were Flashlights Invented? History of the Flashlight

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man using flashlight

Just 20 short years after the first lightbulb was patented by Thomas Edison, the British inventor David Misell patented what would become the first flashlight on January 10th, 1899. This first flashlight was an electric device that would be powered by batteries with a light bulb inside a paper tube and brass reflector. 

Since then, there have been a lot of developments and improvements regarding the flashlight. By the 1900s, there were countless flashlight types available, with millions of flashlight users in the United States alone. As you know today, flashlights are a common staple in every household, and they are more affordable and effective than ever.

To learn more about the history of the flashlight, keep reading.

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When Were Flashlights Invented?

Flashlights were invented in the late 1800s. On January 10th, 1899, David Misell obtained the first patent regarding a flashlight. He obtained the US patent number 617,592. This patent was assigned to the company American Electrical Novelty and Manufacturing Company.

For this patent, the name flashlight was not yet created, but it is clear that this patent was the first for flashlights in general. The device was an electric device designed by Misell. It included a paper tube with a light bulb and a brass reflector at the end. It was powered by “D” batteries.

Shortly after this patent was secured, the company even donated some of these unique devices to the New York City police force. As you probably figured, the police force loved the flashlight, and they began to boom in popularity as a result.

The History of the Flashlight: A Breakdown

Obviously, the history of the flashlight didn’t end with its creation. Because the flashlight is a common device in practically all homes, a lot of renovations and changes had to occur for the device to be so popular today. Here’s a look at the breakdown of the flashlight by important eras and dates:

Early 1900s

Because the first patent for the light bulb was assigned in 1899, most people didn’t begin hearing about flashlights until the early 1900s. At the time, the carbon filament bulbs, as well as the dry cells, made flashlights novelty and expensive.

It wasn’t until 1904 specifically that flashlights became slightly more popular with the development of the tungsten filament lamp. Tungsten filament devices were three times more effective than their original counterparts. At the same time, there are also improvements in the batteries. From these improvements, flashlights became more readily available.

Around the time of World War I, handheld electric lights began replacing combustion-based lamps. Though handheld devices still weren’t excessively common, they were much more available than they were just 10 years prior.

1920s

By the 1920s, there were many different types of flashlights, including handheld varieties, pocket-size lamps, and lantern sizes. There were even large searchlight lamps for finding long-distance objects. Just by 1922, there were an estimated 10 million users in the US alone.

Not to mention, flashlights proved to be a lucrative endeavor. The annual sales of flashlights and renewable batteries that went with the flashlights were around $20 million. The flashlights were popular in the US and other major developed countries during the 1920s, but they still weren’t popular worldwide.

1920`s flashlight in pebbles background

Image Credit: Carlos Neto, Shutterstock

1930s–1990s

When the 1930s rolled around, the popularity of the flashlight had extended long beyond US borders. In China specifically, flashlights were highly popular by the end of the 1930s. As many as 60 companies in China made flashlights. At some of these companies, the flashlights were sold for as little as one-third of the cost of imported flashlights due to major competition.

Throughout the rest of the 1900s, Flashlight became even more popular than ever. Their cost went down while their efficiency went up, which meant homes around the globe were able to afford these useful tools.

Even though flashlights were popular throughout the rest of the 20th century, there weren’t a lot of improvements to the models. Although efficiency went up, these flashlights still relied on incandescent bulbs, which used glass and the tungsten filament that changed the game.

2000s to Today

It wasn’t until the 2000s that the flashlight underwent another major change. LED flashlights began to come onto the scene during this time. Although LEDs have existed for decades, it wasn’t until 1999 that LED lights were introduced to high-powered flashlights. It was found that these LED lights had better power and runtime than the traditional incandescent lights.

By 2006, Maglite made its first LED flashlight. Since then, LED flashlights have quickly replaced incandescent flashlights. The vast majority of flashlights today are LEDs, and they come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and powers.

Looking Towards the Future

Currently, it appears that LEDs are the main flashlight type on the market, and there are no signs of that changing anytime soon.

Even so, there have been some big changes. Some flashlights are incredibly efficient and bright. There are even ultraviolet LED flashlights to help individuals detect UV fluorescent markings. Overall, the power and efficiency of the flashlights are what is changing.

For example, the brightest flashlight in the world is typically agreed to be the Imalent MS18. This flashlight has an output of 100,000 lumens. It is rechargeable and powerful enough to blind you. It is this bright thanks to the 18-LED array.

Additionally, the format and specialized designs of flashlights are changing with the times. You can find headlamps, tactical lights, disposable flashlights, and even unique flashlights that can help you read at night without disturbing your partner.

It will be interesting to see how flashlights change in the future.

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Final Thoughts

Once again, flashlights have technically been around since 1899, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that flashlights became popular among everyday owners. Before then, flashlights were reserved for the wealthy and novelty owners.

Over the years, flashlights have gone through various changes. From carbon filament to tungsten filament, to incandescent lights to LED lights, flashlights have changed to be more affordable but more efficient at the same time.

Looking to the future, LED flashlights are currently here to stay, but their efficiency and output are only increasing. Likewise, their format and accessories are changing as well.


Featured Image Credit: breakermaximus, Shutterstock

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.

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