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A tour through storage brings an innovator to light

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We often rely on our colleagues who have expertise in specific areas to guide us in our selection of objects for the American Enterprise exhibition. In the case of lighting devices featured in the Merchant Era section, we turned to Daniel Mattausch, the country’s foremost authority on historic lighting. Daniel works with the Home and Community Life Division’s lighting collection so he knows the riches in our storage well. During a recent several-hour tour, Daniel led us from devices using whale oil to those using lard secured from “prairie whales” – fat mid western hogs. While we saw a number of wonderful objects, it was the story of Robert Cornelius – entrepreneur and inventor of a solar lamp – that particularly struck us as a fascinating way to look at the dynamics of our exhibition themes: competition, innovation, opportunity and the common good. Daniel wrote this blog so you too could learn about a man he calls “his hero.”

Nancy Davis, American Enterprise curatorial team

An early self-portrait of Robert Cornelius.

An early self-portrait of inventor and businessman Robert Cornelius, taken in 1838. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Robert Cornelius struck a casual pose as he looked into the bright sunlight and took a picture of himself. In our digital age, self-portraits are literally taken a million times every day. But Robert Cornelius had to stare motionless for over five minutes when he took his own picture in October or November of 1838. It was possibly the first time anyone had ever done this. Cornelius soon opened one of the first photographic studios in the world and took portraits of wealthy customers and friends. Only a couple dozen or so of his pictures have survived, because Cornelius returned to his father’s lamp-making business after two years.

It was a time of great innovation in lighting. Whale oil was widely-used as fuel, but gaslights were starting to become popular and a recent invention in England called the “solar lamp” allowed cheap lard oil to be burned in fine lamps. In 1843, Cornelius applied for a U.S. patent on a version of a solar lamp. His application included two models to demonstrate his invention and he was granted a patent on April 6, 1843. At a time when whale oil was becoming more and more expensive, Cornelius lamps could burn not only refined lard oil, but also solid lard and even kitchen grease.

Dan Mattausch

Dan Mattausch, author, with Robert Cornelius’s 1843 patent model for a solar lamp, part of the collections at the National Museum of American History.

Over the next two decades, Cornelius micro-managed the family business, Cornelius & Co. (later Cornelius & Baker) to become the largest lighting company in America. Cornelius solar lamps and gaslights were sold all over the world and were produced in two huge Philadelphia factories. At the same time, Cornelius continued inventing, receiving patents that included several for lighting gaslights with electric-sparks.

Lamp Collage

Details of Cornelius’ historic 1855 Kerosene lamp.

Commerce is dynamic and today’s sensation is always in danger of being tomorrow’s outdated buggy-whip. Cornelius must have known this, because on April 1, 1855, he risked much of his business on a new lamp that, if successful, would turn his lucrative solar lamps into relics. On this date Cornelius presented the first lamp designed to burn a brand new fuel recently named “Kerosene.” Kerosene was even cheaper than lard oil and more convenient to use. Four years later, when oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, Kerosene became the dominant lighting fuel almost overnight.

A portrait of Robert Cornelius

A portrait of Robert Cornelius as the retired “Grand Old Man” of American lighting.

Cornelius seemed to be perfectly positioned to take his company to new heights, but technical innovation is often unpredictable. An obscure Swiss-American immigrant named Johann Stuber invented an extremely cheap burner that could be used on existing lamps to burn Kerosene. The Cornelius lamps cost at least 14 times more and couldn’t compete. A few years later, Cornelius patented a similar cheap burner, but it was too late. Although Cornelius retired in the mid-1860s and lived many years as a wealthy man, his once dominant firm was rapidly overtaken by other companies, a dramatic example of the rise and fall of industries in an ever-changing marketplace.

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    Daniel MattauschDan Mattausch has worked with the lighting collection at the National Museum of American History since 2007. As a preservation consultant for historic lighting, his projects have ranged from the White House to the Wright Brother’s bicycle shop.View all posts by Daniel Mattausch