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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 812-814

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Book Review

Brandy, Balloons, and Lamps: Ami Argand, 1750-1803

Brandy, Balloons, and Lamps: Ami Argand, 1750-1803. By John J. Wolfe. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999. Pp. xiv+192; illustrations, appendixes, notes/references, bibliography, index. $59.95.

Today, good lighting is available whenever we want it at the flick of a switch or the press of a button. It is hard to imagine the world of only 220 years ago, when gas light and electric light were as yet undreamed of and such lamps as there were burned oil, usually derived from animal or vegetable sources; they were smoky and smelly, cheaper than candles but no brighter.

Into this world came Ami Argand, with a lamp ten times brighter than any known before and emitting less smoke and smell because it burned the oil more completely. Its wick was a fabric tube, rather than a piece of string, and air could get to the inside of the wick as well as to the outside. A glass chimney over the wick encouraged an updraft of air so the flame burned [End Page 812] hotter and brighter. The virtues of the new lamp were obvious, and it was soon in great demand in Britain, France, and America, although manufacturing problems meant the demand was not quickly met.

Argand was born in Geneva, the younger son of a watchmaker who could afford to give his sons a good education. Ami was intended to become a clergyman and was enrolled at the Auditoire de Philosophie under Professor Horace-Benedict de Sassure, who became a lifelong friend. He soon found his main interests were in science rather than theology, and when he was twenty-five he went, on Sassure's recommendation, to study physics and chemistry in Paris under Lavoisier and others. In the following few years Argand published a number of scientific papers and gave lectures on topics including new ideas on distillation. He was invited by some wine growers in Languedoc to apply his ideas to the production of brandy. This was so successful that he was invited to build a bigger distillery, and his work came to the notice of Louis XVI. In 1780, wanting to operate the wine distillation process at night, he turned his attention to lighting. He made lamps with a tubular wick and a short metal tube placed a few centimeters above the flame so that the light shone out beneath.

During a visit to Lyon in 1783 Argand met first Etienne Montgolfier and then Etienne's elder brother Joseph. They quickly developed a close friendship, and Argand became actively involved in the Montgolfiers' balloon experiments. One early flight was witnessed by a team of official observers from the Académie des Sciences, including Benjamin Franklin, who was then in France. (It was after being asked what purpose the balloon might serve that Franklin produced his famous rejoinder "Of what use is a newborn baby?")

Later that year Argand traveled to London where the scientist Jean-André de Luc, also from Geneva, introduced him to the king and queen. They were impressed with his lamp, and George III promised him a patent. De Luc also introduced Argand to James Watt, and he met several English manufacturers, including Matthew Boulton, who agreed to make Argand lamps at his factory in Soho, Birmingham. The project did not proceed smoothly, however, partly because Boulton was often away at the Cornish mines, and partly because Argand's lamps were not the only things being made at Soho. Once the principles were generally understood other makers pirated Argand's ideas and his patents were challenged in both the English and the French courts.

John J. Wolfe is a collector of early lighting devices and consulted on the restoration of Boulton's eighteenth-century home in Birmingham. For this study he traced Argand's correspondence in English, French, and Swiss archives; more than one hundred letters describe Argand's dealings with manufacturers, customers, and officialdom. The book is attractively produced, with many color...


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