Titanic and WWI-era Flashlights

I was going to write so many blog posts during the pandemic, and then it turned out that living in unprecedented times is stressful. Between dealing with school-at-home and quarantines and the general brain fog of being uncertain and overwhelmed a lot, I didn’t post much in the last year. But I have been doing a lot of research on all kinds of things, and I want to start sharing that again. Hopefully, people find it interested and/or helpful, but at least it means I don’t have to do the research again if I forget what I learned (anyone else feel like their memory is worse after 2020?).

I’ve worked on two writing projects recently where my WWI-era-ish characters have needed flashlights to explore dark and spooky places. Since they’re Americans, it’s flashlights and not torches, as our friends across the pond call them – I love how evocative “torch” is versus “flashlight,” but here we are with American English. At our house, we recently had to turn the power off in one room while fixing a leak in the bathroom above (a whole ‘nother round of unneeded drama), and we learned all over again to appreciate portable light.

Prior to flashlights, of course, people had candles, oil-burning lanterns, and even old-fashioned torches made of wood and cloth or rushlights. But the inventions of batteries and lightbulbs meant that we could harness electricity and hold it in our hands. Pretty cool, really.

As I was researching what kinds of flashlights were available to my civilian characters between 1918 and 1920, I found one web site claiming that the flashlights in the movie Titanic were an anachronism. The specific types of flashlights might have been, but handheld flashlights were certainly available by 1912. You can see below the 1899 patent and an ad for heandheld, tube-shaped flashlights run by batteries (evidently with enough of a market that there were already multiple patents and manufacturers competing – images courtesy of Wikimedia commons, public domain). The design isn’t too different from modern flashlights.

By 1918, the Germans had developed a dynamo flashlight – one that is powered by motion instead of batteries. Modern crank or shake flashlights are an example of this flashlight type. The German dynamo flashlight was worn on the chest of soldiers’ uniforms and powered by pulling a cord that spun coils in a magnetic field, creating enough energy to run a light for five seconds per pull (see Popular Mechanics Magazine vol. 32, 1919, “German Pocket Flashlight Contains Own Dynamo”). I can’t find information on any earlier dynamo flashlights, and the article seems to suggest that this was a new innovation, saying that the technology was discovered when American soldiers captured some Germans. Image below.

The most common type of flashlight used by soldiers in WWI, though, seems to be the “upright” style in the image below, with a rectangular metal case and the bulb on the front. Some, like the one pictured, had a metal “lid” that closed like an eyelid to cover the lightbulb when needed. A similar upright pocket flashlight saved the life of Winston Churchill in the trenches when it blocked a piece of shrapnel that hit him in the chest. (image courtesy of the Imperial War Museums © IWM EPH 3684)

German battery operated electric torch associated with the First World War experiences of Captain E W Leggatt as a prisoner of war in Holzminden Camp, Germany. The torch was obtained from a German sentry. Captain Leggatt was captured on 9 August 1916, and subsequently was one of the ten men who made a successful escape through the tunnel at Holzminden POW camp, Germany, on 23 July 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30083223

One of the things I find really interesting about the time period surrounding WWI is the constrasts. Big cities had electric lights, telephones, and other fairly modern technologies, while rural areas were still very isolated and more likely to use oil for heating and lighting. Of course, there are still parts of rural Utah, especially those associated with the Navajo reservation, that are still struggling to get water and electricity lines (though they can use solar power as an alternative now, where it’s financially viable). For a glimpse of post-WWI rural life, check out Blood in a Dry Town (formerly Home Again Blues) on Amazon.

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