First Portable Electric Lantern, 1896.



First Portable Light To Use a Dry Cell Battery

A brief history of the Acme Electric Light, the first commercially successful portable electric light powered by a dry cell battery.

Louis A. Jackson, was 51 years old when he organized the Acme Electric Lamp Company on June 15, 1896. He applied for a patent for his Portable Lamp (Bicycle Light) on July 25, 1896 and was granted U.S. patent number 572,805 on Dec. 8, 1896.

Acme was located at 1659 Broadway, in midtown Manhattan, NYC. Acme employed from 6 to 12 people. One of whom was teenager Joshua Lionel Cowen, who went on to develop the Lionel electric train. Fifty years later, Cowen made the dubious claim that he invented a lighted flower pot that Eveready developed into the flashlight. One of the flaws in the Cowen story is that he was already working for a company that was making portable lights far superior to his lighted flower pot. Another inconsistency of his story, the inefficient batteries of that period were incapable of producing sustained light to illuminate a flower pot for any period of time.

The Acme bicycle light used a 4 cell, 6 volt dry cell battery pack. In 1896, carbon filament bulb technology required at least 6 volts to excite to illumination the relatively thick carbon filaments available during that period. Each battery was 3 inches in length and 1- 3/8 inches in diameter. Harry C. Anderson, Dry Cell Battery Pioneer, worked for Jackson and was the first known battery maker to produce dry batteries that size.

In January, 1898, David Misell also used a 1-3/8 inch diameter battery, but shortened the length to 2-1/4 inches so he could fit three batteries into his new invention, the first tubular flashlight which he sold to the Ever Ready Company. This was the first use of a battery with those dimensions and it became the standard D cell battery. The diameter of the D cell battery today has been reduced to 1-5/16 inches.

Acme lamps were sophisticated and well crafted. The square, thin metal case held four batteries, 3" in length, soldered together in series and placed side by side to form a square battery pack. Perhaps the most sophisticated feature of Acme Lamps was a four position rheostat switch which was a distinctive feature on all early Acme lights. The rheostat switch was set in a mahogany lid and furnished various brilliances of light and helped prolong the life of those relatively inefficient batteries. Even so, those early dry cell batteries would discharge quickly if used constantly for any period of time.

The conical reflector on these early Acme lights was well designed and superbly silvered. The lens, bulb and reflector unit projected from the front of the case. And even more important the lens was made of flat, non magnifying glass. Far superior to the bullseye lens found on every tubular flashlight made during the first 15 years. Apparently, consumers were under the impression that bullseye lenses magnified light, rather than dispersing it.

The first Acme model was made with a bicycle bracket, but a handle was soon added when its value as a portable hand light was discovered. The new model with a handle was called a House Lamp and with intermittent use, became popular as a source of portable light.

Acme must have a made substantial number of Acme Electric Lamps before being put out of business by the tubular flashlight because the American Ever Ready Company offered a battery pack for Acme lamps in their 1907 catalog.

Acme advertised their bicycle light in the February 29, 1897, issue of the Scientific American. Acme printed their first catalogue in the spring of 1897, and a second catalog in the spring of 1898. Judging from the number of surviving models, House Lamps were the best seller, which is not surprising.

Do not pass up the opportunity to buy this, the first successful form of portable electric light, should you have the good fortune to find one at a reasonable price.

If this sort of information proves useful or interesting we can further discuss the first tubular flashlight, invented in 1898.

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Flashlight Enthusiast
Feb 28, 2001
London, UK (Parallel Universe)
thanks for that masterclass.
I enjoyed reading your concise history - it gives an idea of what things were like in that distant time, over 100 years ago.
To think that the D-cell is so old, and is still the one most people would recognise as a basic "torch battery" .



May 2, 2002
Central California
Fantastic! Keep going with the history of portable electric lighting. I think most of the CPF folks would like to know how we got to where we are today.


Mar 13, 2002
N 42° 29' 48", W 83° 11' 14"
That's an excellent background, many thanks.

I'm a fan of the Connections TV program that James Burke did, how he would show how we got from, say, water gardens to postal stamps, to microchips.

Lionel is nearby, and alot of people in southeast MI have a warm spot in our hearts for the company.

BTW, I ordered a book about collecting flashlights. would anybody here know anything about the author?