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Collectors' pride: History captured in the flame of lighters

The story of lighters is connected to imperialism, wars, economic boom, eliticism, movies, expansion of tobacco trade, smoking as a manifestation of male ego, globalisation and the consequent rise in smoking in the 20th century across the gender divide, says Aditya Paul, whose collection of 1,000 lighters spans nearly a century.

A Hamilton Ship Wheel Lighter and an Indian brass elephant lighter from Aditya Paul's collection

Paul's collection of rare lighters features antiquities from the British Raj in India, the World Wars, the Communist and the hippie movements and the outdoor Zippo lighters, one of the largest selling designer lighter brands in the world.

"One of the most striking lighters in my collection is an art deco King George strike lighter made in 1936. It is one the lighters gifted by King George V1 to his guests during his coronation," the 39-year-old Paul, a business consultant, told IANS.

The heavy bronze table lighter nearly 10 inches high is an intricately carved icon of a standing King George VI - Elizabeth II's father - in royal regalia with a sword by his side. A strike light box stands on a podium next to the king with a flint band. A metal stick on the stand is used to light the fire from the flint.

A silver armoured knight, nearly 12 inches high, is another example of delicate art deco table lighter craftsmanship in Paul's collection.

The knight, while bending forward in thought leaning on its sword, lights from its head with the helmet as the lighter cap.

A Hamilton's Shipwheel, a lighter shaped like the steering wheel of a ship, was manufactured in the US in the 1940s. The nautical lighter plated with chrome has a wick that sticks out when the wheel is turned.

A rare King George VI table strike lighter that was given to guests at King George's coronation in 1932 in Paul's collection

One of the oldest in the collection is a Fujima lift arm petrol lighter manufactured in 1912 - a chunky metal contraption with a complex lighting mechanism. It belongs to an era when petrol was used as fuel in a small chamber as the combustion liquid.

"The earliest lighters, however, were the flintlock lighters used in the 16th century by converting the flintlock gunpowder pistol into lighters by putting a ball in the muzzle that would produce a spark that could be lit with a wick," Paul said. The invention of the flintlocks timed with the introduction of tobacco products in Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh.

"Nothing much took place till the early 19th century," Paul said.

In 1823, a German inventor Johann Wolfgang Dobernier made the first table lighter, known as the Dobernier lamp, using liquid hydrogen as fuel and platinum as the lighting metal.

The Dobernier lamps made away for the first "cap" lighters in 1880s, Paul said. A patent for the cap lighter was awarded to Elias Bernard Koopman in 1890.

It marked the beginning an exciting era.

Armed with the business expertise from manufacturing cap lighters and spy cameras, Koopman and three of his working associates set up the American Mutospcope and Biograph Company - the first American motion picture company and its enduring affair with the lighter.

Paul's collection brings back the spectre of the World Wars with a section on trench lighters of the 1920s.

"During the world war, a match caught attention, but the lighter flame was less glaring," Paul said.

Around the same time, American inventor Louis Vincent Aronson, the creator of the Ronson range, made a fortune by designing art deco showpiece lighters and automatic pocket Banjo lighters that produced sparks of fire, Paul said showing off a vintage Ronson touch tip lighter.

"The pre-flint lighters made way for the Zippo lighter prototype in 1932 by George Blaisdell. It changed the lighter technology. The Zippo was meant for use outdoors," Paul said. His collection of Zippo lighters cover nearly 80 years of production in series - from the early Zippo table lighters to automatic pocket lighters of the day, including the Che Guevera range.

"The collection began with a Zippo lighter that my grandfather had gifted me," Paul said.

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