A lantern is a portable source of lighting, typically featuring a protective enclosure for the light source—usually a candle or a wick in oil—to make it easier to carry and hang up, and make it more reliable outdoors or in drafty interiors.
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Lanterns were usually made from a metal frame with several sides (usually four, but up to eight), commonly with a hook or a hoop of metal on top. Windows of some translucent material would be fitted in the sides, now usually glass or plastic but formerly thin sheets of animal horn, or tinplate punched with holes or decorative patterns; though some antique lanterns have only a metal grid, clearly indicating their function was that outlined below.
Though primarily used to prevent a burning candle or wick being extinguished from wind, rain or other causes, another important function was to reduce the risk of fire should a spark leap from the flame or the light be dropped. This was especially important below deck on ships: a fire on a wooden ship was a major catastrophe. Use of unguarded lights was taken so seriously that obligatory use of lanterns, rather than unprotected flames, below decks was written into one of the few known remaining examples of a pirate code, on pain of severe punishment (article VI of Captain John Phillips's articles). The term used was "lanthorn", believed to be due to popular etymology, from the early use of horn windows.
Lanterns may also be used for signaling, as torches, or as general light-sources outdoors. Low-light level varieties can function as decoration, and can be a variety of colours and sizes. The term "lantern" is also used more generically to mean a light source, or the enclosure for a light source. Examples are glass-pane enclosed street lights, or the housing for the top lamp and lens section of a lighthouse. The term is commonly associated with Chinese paper lanterns.
Lanterns, some using a wick in oil, others essentially protected candle-holders, have been used functionally, for light rather than decoration, since antiquity. Before the development of glass sheets, animal horn scraped thin and flattened was used as the translucent window.
Decorative lanterns exist in a wide range of designs. Some hang from buildings, while others are placed on or just above the ground. Paper lanterns are made in societies around the world. Modern varieties often place an electric light in a decorative glass case.
The ancient Chinese sometimes captured fireflies in transparent or semi-transparent containers and used them as (short-term) lanterns. Raise the Red Lantern, a Chinese film, prominently features lanterns as a motif. Lanterns are used in many Asian festivals. During the Ghost Festival, lotus shaped lanterns are set afloat in rivers and seas to symbolic guide the lost souls of forgotten ancestors to the afterlife. During the Lantern Festival, the displaying of many lanterns is still a common sight on the 15th day of the first lunar month throughout China. In other Chinese festivities, the kongming lanterns can be seen floating high into the sky during Chinese festivities. Lanterns are the central theme of the Seoul Lantern Festival, too.
Use of fireflies in transparent containers was also a widespread practice in ancient India. But since these were short term solutions, the use of fire torches was more prevalent.
The derived term "lantern jaw[ed]" is used in two quite different still current ways, comparing faces with different types of lantern. According to the OED, it refers to "long thin jaws, giving a hollow appearance to the cheek"; this use was recorded in 1361, referring to a lantern with concave horn sides before glass was in use. Another meaning comes from a 15th-century lantern with a jutting base (illustrated above), compared with the face of a person with mandibular prognathism, with extended chin, also known as Habsburg jaw or Habsburg lip as it was a hereditary feature of the House of Habsburg (see for example portraits of Charles V).
Modern fueled lanterns
All fueled lanterns are somewhat hazardous owing to the danger of handling flammable and toxic fuel, danger of fire or burns from the high temperatures involved, and potential dangers from carbon monoxide poisoning if used in an enclosed environment.
Simple wick lanterns remain available. They are cheap and durable, but provide little light and are unsuitable for reading. They require periodic trimming of the wick and regular cleaning of soot from the inside of the glass chimney.
Mantle lanterns use a woven ceramic impregnated gas mantle to accept and re-radiate heat as visible light from a flame. The mantle does not burn (but the cloth matrix carrying the ceramic must be "burned out" with a match prior to its first use). When heated by the operating flame the mantle becomes incandescent and glows brightly. The heat may be provided by a gas, by kerosene, or by a pressurized liquid such as "white gas", which is essentially naphtha. For protection from the high temperatures produced and to stabilize the airflow, a cylindrical glass shield called the globe or chimney is placed around the mantle.
Manually pressurized lanterns using white gas (also marketed as Coleman fuel or "Camp Fuel") are manufactured by the Coleman Company in one and two-mantle models. Some models are dual fuel and can also use gasoline. These are being supplanted by a battery-powered fluorescent lamp and LED models, which are safer in the hands of young people and inside tents. Battery-operated lanterns are produced by many manufacturers including Coleman. Liquid fuel lanterns remain popular where the fuel is easily obtained and in common use.
Many portable mantle-type fuel lanterns now use fuel gases that become liquid when compressed, such as propane, either alone or combined with butane. Such lamps usually use a small disposable steel container to provide the fuel. The ability to refuel without liquid fuel handling increases safety and additional fuel supplies for such lamps have an indefinite shelf life if the containers are protected from moisture (which can cause corrosion of the container) and excess heat.
Modern electric lanterns
Lanterns designed as permanently mounted electric lighting fixtures are used in interior, landscape, and civic lighting applications. Styles can evoke former eras, unify street furniture themes, or enhance aesthetic considerations. They are manufactured for use with various wired voltage supplies.
Some rechargeable fluorescent lanterns may be plugged in at all times and may be set up to illuminate upon a power failure, a useful feature in some applications. During extensive power failures (or for remote use), supplemental recharging may be provided from an automobile's 12-volt electrical system or from a modest solar-powered charger. Solar-powered lanterns have become popular in developing countries, where they provide a safer and cheaper alternative to kerosene lamps.
Battery powered lanterns
Various battery types are used in portable light sources. They are more convenient, safer, and produce less heat than combustion lights.
Lanterns utilizing LEDs are popular as they are more energy-efficient and rugged than other types, and prices of LEDs suitable for lighting have dropped.
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- "lantern". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Terry Pepper, Seeing the Light, Lighthouse of the western Great Lakes, Illumination. Archived 2009-01-23 at the Wayback Machine
- Wedgwood, Hensleigh (1855). "On False Etymologies". Transactions of the Philological Society (6): 66.
- "lantern". www.etymonline.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 19 July 2019.
- "A rare Roman lantern". Colchester and Ipswich Museums. Retrieved 30 March 2018. A Roman lantern from 43-300AD.
- "lantern jaw". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- "Lantern jaw". Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved 16 March 2018.
- Ashden Awards case study on solar-powered lanterns in India
- Needham, Joseph (1985). Science and Civilisation in China: Paper and Printing. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-08690-5.