Jason Clarke Antiques

Late Victorian Clarke's Patent Portable Electrical Gas Lighter


For sale, a Late Victorian Clarke’s Patent Portable Electrical Gas Lighter.

A fascinating piece for those with an interest in both electrostatic machines and early electricity. The instrument is comprised of a Vulcanite barrel handle with nickel plated access covers and sprung thumb press on the side. The top has a large 28cm nickel plated rod with a three cut out sections to the tip which reveal a needle point spark gap (electrodes) in the central core.

The base is impressed with, Clarke’s Patent – 5992-6313 and the numbers 100,000 and 18,507.

This ingenious instrument was patented in the UK on the 31st December 1883 by Charles Leigh Clarke of Manchester and was considered in the patent documentation to be, “an improvement in portable gas-lighting apparatus. Its object is to provide a convenient, durable and portable instrument for generating and utilising electricity for lighting inflammable gases or vapours, and for various other purposes such as firing explosive charges in mining operations or for torpedo or artillery work”.

The operation and component parts of the instrument are considered at length within the patent and are too voluminous to copy here but the mechanism is essentially a miniaturised cylinder wimshurst machine. The interior cylinder which has foil sectors on its external face is spun at speed by the depression of the sprung trigger on the handle and a series of collectors attached to the inside of the barrel handle make contact with the spinning cylinder and thus collect the charge which is released at the tip of the shaft.

An ingenious reuse of the wimshurst’s principles on a miniature scale. The US patent suggests that it was also patented in six other countries beyond the UK and US so it may have gained some popularity during the lifetime of its production. They are now however, quite scarce and more often than not in a non-working state. This example has been lovingly restored to good working condition as can be seen from the images provided.

The inventor, Charles Leigh Clarke traded in partnership with William Henry Tudsbury Turner (Clarke & Turner) during the 1870’s as Iron Merchants and Engineers. By the mid 1870’s the company seems to have gotten into some difficulties owing to bankruptcy records lodged in The London Gazette. This situation remained for four years where an application for an Order of Discharge was applied for.

It is not known whether this partnership remained beyond that point as Charles Leigh Clarke certainly advertised under his own name during and beyond this time. An 1875 advert relates a breathtaking number of products and services available from this enterprising character. It states:

“Charles Leigh Clarke. Iron Merchant, Engineers’ Factor, Mill Furniser – Iron, Brass & CopperTubes & Fittings. Wilson’s Patent Steam Impermeators, Brass Steam Fittings, Needle Lubricators. Asbestos Patent Steam Packing, India Rubber Washers, Improved Water Gauge Tubes, Steam & Gas Piping of all descriptions.”

By the 1880’s, Clarke took out a number of patents relating to battery technology and of course those related to this instrument. A prolific character who was also linked with Gustav Binswager (later Gustav Byng), the original founder of the General Electric Company (GEC). Binswager originally founded a company named the Electric Appliance Company, later renamed The Electrical Apparatus Company in 1884 with the arrival of a partner James Boyd.  Its original adverts interestingly presenting exactly the same products as Clarke’s adverts of the mid 1870’s so it is considered that some form of trading relationship was in existence at this time between Manchester and London.

With disagreement between the Directors of EAC, Binswager took fellow German, Hugo Hirst with him to form what became The General Electric Company. In a piece entitled, GEC and the Telephone published through the The Institute of Science Journal, Bob Estreich & Alan Gall relate that:

“With a ‘go-getter’ like Hugo Hirst involved, it was not long before the fledgling GEC started making plans for large-scale manufacturing. Charles Leigh Clarke, an investor in the EAC, held a number of patents including one for a successful gas lighter. To exploit these inventions Clarke had helped set up the Patent Electric Gas Igniting Company Ltd at London which changed name to the Electric Portable Battery & Gas Igniting Company Ltd, and then moved to premises at Clegg’s Court, off Chapel Street, Salford. Binswanger had business dealings with the EPBGIC, held some shares, and so when it went broke in 1887 he was well placed to take over the factory and associated patents.”

Little is known of Clarke’s career beyond the sad demise of his business but during its final year of trading, the Electric Portable Battery & Gas Igniting Company did manage to exhibit at the Manchester Jubilee Exhibition where it showed a similarly vast range of electrical products ranging from batteries, galvanometers, electric cigar lighters, clock motors, inductions coils and switches and wire for electric lighting.

A somewhat forgotten figure in the development of electricity at the end of the Victorian age due to his seeming lack of business acumen but nevertheless an important player in the early expansion of The General Electric Company which continued to trade for another hundred years beyond.

Circa 1885

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