Update: The German “strike-a-light” sold for £1,125 ($1,390).
What you see: A brass and steel tinder pistol, also known as a table “strike-a-light”, probably made in Germany around 1650. Bonhams has estimated it at £1,000 to £1,500, or $1,200 to $1,800. “It’s like a small gun, really,” says Bonhams specialist David Houlston. “You pull the trigger, like you do on a gun, and it ignites for you.”
So it’s not a steampunk insect? No. It’s the great-great-great grandparent of the Zippo lighter. “It’s an ancestor of it,” Houlston says. “It works the same way.”
How does it work? First, load a small, sharp piece of flint in the tiny vice that sticks up from the device, and tighten the jaws to fix the flint firmly in place. Next, take the curved piece of metal that sticks up from the device and pull it forward, toward the end that looks like it has a beak and front legs. Load the pan with gunpowder. Now you’re ready to pull the trigger–the thing that looks like a back foot. The flint will strike the metal and the resulting sparks will fall into the pan, lighting the gunpowder. Voila! You have a light. Now you’re ready to use matches or sticks (stored in the body of the device; the door of the compartment is not visible in the photo) to transfer the flame to a candle or a pipe.
What made this a nifty piece of technology in mid-17th century Europe? Before the arrival of the strike-a-light, people were obliged to bang a flint against metal repeatedly to create sparks for a fire. The strike-a-light took the tedium out of that chore. “It was engineered to make sure [to release] the right amount of force to create a spark each time,” says Houlston.
Does it still work? It’s not clear. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t work,” says Houlston, explaining that he and his colleagues won’t risk testing it on the small but real chance that it might possibly break. “If it doesn’t work now, I think very little would need to be done to make it work. It shouldn’t take much.”
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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.