The Hitchcock lamp was a technological marvel before the advent of electricity— and it was created right here in Watertown.
Robert Hitchcock was born on Wolfe Island, Ont., in October 1832 and was naturalized in Watertown in 1859. He spent his early years here, apprenticing with a jeweler and watch maker before leaving in 1863 to work with a clock manufacturer in Boston. While seemingly incongruous with his future as a well-known lamp maker, Mr. Hitchcock’s background in clock making was fundamental to the development of his famous lamps.
In the early 19th century tallow candles and whale oil lamps were commonly used to light homes and businesses. By the early 1860s kerosene was introduced, and much to the relief of whales everywhere, quickly replaced whale oil and tallow as the lighting fuel of choice.
It also was during the 1860s that the kerosene lamp was invented. The design of the today’s kerosene lamp has remained fairly consistent with its 19th-century predecessor. It consisted of a kerosene reservoir, a brass burner through which a fiber wick was passed and that sported supports for a glass globe or chimney. The burner was equipped with adjustable teeth that were used to move the wick up or down to adjust the height of the flame. The problem with traditional kerosene lamps was that the flame was unsteady and the wick tended to smoke, which covered the lamp’s chimney, and adjacent walls, in unsightly soot.
Using his clock-making background and a little mechanical ingenuity, Mr. Hitchcock addressed those issues. His invention made the use of chimneys unnecessary, while providing a cleaner and more even flame. He did this by installing a small fan, operated by a clock spring, in the base of the lamp. The mechanism, essentially identical to that of a clock, only had to be wound with a key once a day. The concealed fan forced a draft of air up through the burner that supplied a steady mixture of oxygen to the flame, thus allowing it to burn steadily, without smoke, and without a chimney. Needless to say, this had special appeal to housewives everywhere.
Mr. Hitchcock developed the idea while running a clock and lamp manufacturing business in Bristol, Conn. With financial backing from his friend and former business associate Roswell P. Flower, Mr. Hitchcock moved back to Watertown in 1872 to organize the Hitchcock Lamp Company. An 1876 Watertown business directory shows that the Hitchcock Co. was located at 21-23-25 Factory St., the present location of the Knowlton Technologies offices.
By 1876, the lamps were being manufactured and marketed to private residences, businesses, as well as for use in street cars. While the $6 price tag of the least expensive model, roughly $120 today, was a bit steep for most families to afford for in-home use, the Hitchcock lamp was a popular fixture aboard ships, in railroad cars, waiting rooms and other public places.
A catalogue issued by the company advertised a number of designs, including high-end brass table lamps, hanging lamps, elaborate single- and three-lamp chandeliers, and even a bicycle lamp that promised to burn for up to 10 hours, not jar out, and throw light for 50 feet.
Mr. Hitchcock won national acclaim for his lamps. In 1876, he was awarded the City of Philadelphia Medal at the Centennial Fair and again in 1883 received the Franklin Scott Medal in recognition of his contribution to kerosene lamp improvements.
The Hitchcock Lamp Co. enjoyed a steady demand for its product until the early 1890s when central gas and electric power began to encroach on the kerosene market. Mr. Hitchcock secured his last patent in 1887, retired from the business in 1899 and died the following year.
Before his death, he licensed two other manufacturers to make and sell the Hitchcock lamp on a royalty basis – one in New Haven, Conn., and the other in New York City. The last known manufacture date of a Hitchcock lamp was 1905.