Thomas M. O'Key
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Venus rises in the West as an early fall dawn approaches... photographed by my friend, Wally.... 

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making fire

Now adding new info...

Welcome to the my web site!
It is with great pleasure that I send you my sincere gratitude for visiting.

The first entry I am offering for exploration is an overview of the collection of firemaking devices that represent a work that began in 1973. Now, nearly four decades later, the collection has reached a point that it might be considered complete. As result, documenting the collection is timely as a comprehensive exhibition of the collection took place this summer at the Hi Desert Nature Museum in Yucca Valley, California. Celebrating the history of making fire and man's taming of the flame coincided with another event that was also celebrated and that was the centennial of the first exhibition of fire making appliances during the summer of 1910 that Edward Bidwell exhibited in the England.

So, one hundred years later, the saga of fire and fire making continues. Curiosity, fascination and reverence are all underlying reasons for the interest and attraction to this maker of humanity. Fire, the root of all things!

~~THE EXHIBITION - JUNE 12 - OCTOBER 10 - 2010 ~~

The exhibit hall at the Hi Desert Nature Museum is about a thousand square feet. The display fit well into the area. Free standing cases held lighters that were organized by subject or relative era as well as rarity in numbers in the collection. Shadow box style frames mounted side by side on the central and rear wall contain smaller lighters and were arranged by type and subject.
Information placards near each case explain the contents of the displays and tags highlighting information is mixed near relative items inside the cases. Visual images and documentation is dispersed between the open spaces in the exhibit and add information related to the subject matter in the area.

I have begun to write the book...... see "more stuff" for the first glimpse of what is underway.....


Early lighters that used different kinds of match like ignition systems c.1850 - 1870

Lighters coined "System lighter" as they used gear systems to make sparks that lit the tinder cord

A very early pocket tobacco box with "Burning Lens" built into the bottom c. 1700

The Kronprinz Wilhelm was known as the "Butcher of Verdun" during WWI





A Collector’s View of Tom O’key’s High Desert Exhibit

by Guy Nishida

“The discovery of a means of creating fire at will has been described quite justifiably as Man’s earliest and greatest achievement.”

Miller Christy in The Bryant and May Museum Catalog

I recently journeyed to the High Desert Museum in Yucca Valley, CA. to tour the exhibit entitled “Quest For Fire” “The History of Making Fire”. I believe it is most important for all of us as collectors to support any endeavor that advances the outreach of our hobby.

The exhibit consists of the collection of Tom O’Key who is a long-time member of OTLS. Tom curates this exhibit and has given several lectures. I’ve been privileged to see the Lighter Museum in Holland (now closed), the Zippo Museum, the Dunhill Museum and some of the great private lighter collections. Yet of those I have seen, I have to state without reservation that in terms of historical importance they pale in comparison. While the aforementioned museums and collections have their strengths and include wonderful pieces, they show scant examples of the breadth of fire-making devices from infancy to the beginnings of the 20th Century.

I do admit some bias since I favor the older pieces to some extent. How else do we understand the developmental history of lighters of the 20th century without knowing what preceded them? We all know about today’s automobile versus the horse and buggy. We can easily distinguish the extraordinary differences in convenience and capabilities between them. Yet, these changes evolved over decades and we have no sense of this evolution without seeing the incremental changes brought about by the inventors and inventions of the earliest vehicles. When seen in a diorama or similar view chronologically designed, we are astonished by sketches for windmill-driven vehicles, early steam engines, and even the later Model T while the succeeding displays (covering perhaps a 100 short years) showcase the technological marvels of today.

Do your children and grandchildren know that circa 1960 our cars had mobile record players sitting on heavy coil springs to minimize vibration transference from the wheels? And though our listening tastes might have remained constant, in our short lifetimes the pace of technology has moved us on to 4-track tapes, then 8-track, to cassettes, CDs, and now MP3 players.

In much the same way, Tom’s exhibit provided this overview of fire-making objects that inspired later versions. And truly, the layout and care taken to display our passion in a logical, comprehensive, and professional manner is re­markable. Nothing distracted or obstructed your view. The text accompanying the specimens is detailed but not overly burdensome if one was prepared to spend adequate time to view the exhibit. It was clear and not excessively technical. In his lecture, Tom educated passionately without being pedantic, although his vast knowledge of the subject could leave one flummoxed if he chose a more graduate-level approach. Thankfully, that was not the case.

But how far back in time can we go? As Tom noted, a 2004 excavation in Israel has uncovered evidence of the controlled use of fire approximately 790,000 years ago. Shards of flint, cooked bone, and a hearth are extant. And as we might know from our Roman and Greek mythology, fire has been a key element in antiquity.

While the sophistication in fire-making devices has not exhibited the exponential growth espoused in Moore’s Law for computing power, it is nonetheless impressive. We have gone from manual flint and steel used as late as the 1920’s in conjunction with rope lighters to Instantaneous Light (if I may usurp the name of Henry Berry’s 1820’s de­vice) today. All the while the price of fire has continued to plummet. What was originally a luxury is now a throwaway item. Many of us have relatives whose lifetimes span this relatively short period of time.

Tom’s exhibit follows the thoughts expressed by Miller Christy is his introduction to the Bryant & May Catalog. As Bisconcini’s tome is often cited as the Bible of lighters, so too is The Bryant and May Catalog cherished by collec­tors of primitive fire-making as a singular source document. Knowing that many collectors do not have access to this historic work, I reprint below some excerpts:

“To no one is the subject of greater interest than to the student of ethnology and cultural anthropology.” “Moreover, to the archeologist, the historian, the student of domestic customs, and to others, the methods which have been devised by civilized peoples, in more modern times, to achieve the same object are also of much interest; and a host of such students have set themselves to collect and study these more modern contrivances - - from the flints-and-steels associated with the troublesome tinder-box of our grandparents to the chemical “instantaneous Page 8 lights” of a rather later period and the familiar friction-match of the present day.”

Christy goes on to mention that up until the consolidation of several collections forming the Bryant and May exhibit, nowhere had a space been devoted entirely to this subject. One hundred years later, Tom has recreated this vision.

On display were flints and steels, elaborate and simple forms from souvenir chuckmucks to portable pieces af­fordable only by the wealthy, early percussion lighters, electro-pneumatic and compression devices, tinder pistols, as well as the earliest matches (1820’s) and their containers. The amazing number of chemical parlor lighters of every sort, including several extremely rare Dobereiner hydrogen lamps were on display, from the simply utilitarian to the very elaborate as well as its more scarce precursors, including a version of Alessandro Volta’s Temple of Vesta lighter.

Volta was a well-known and well-respected Italian physicist who was memorialized by the application of his name to a basic unit of electrical measurement - - the volt. Concurrent with our nascent country’s war of independence against the British, Volta was experimenting with flammable gases and electricity. Incidentally, there is an excellent treatise available on-line on Volta’s lighter and subsequent improvements authored by Paolo Brenni. Here is a link:

Extensive examples of ignition materials included caps, pellets, and matches; each specimen evidencing some improvement or attempt at improvement. They all reinforce the concept of what Tom described as an inventor’s mind­set - - “mine is better than yours”. But like the evolutionary tree of living species, some of these “developments” resulted in a dead end.

Rope lighters, trench and the advertising lighters and matches have their place in the timeline. The primitive fire plow, bows and drills are also on view. Wonderful supporting ephemera and colorful period advertisements enhance the experience.

Where else would one hope to find a pocket version of a tinder pistol, a tinder pistol mechanism perched on a long stemmed Dutch pipe for easily lighting one’s tobacco, multiple iterations of the early cap and pellet lighters and automatic match dispensers? Included in the amazing array was an ingenious alarm clock circa mid 1700’s. It consists of 3 main parts: the clock, a tinder pistol, and a candle. The clockwork mechanism can be primed to operate by setting the clock to the desired hour. When activated, it causes the cocked hammer holding flint to strike the frizzen igniting the powder and creating enough flame to light a candle. This bedside device woke the slumbering owner while simul­taneously illuminating the room.

Finally, after a century of dormancy, museum-quality fire-making devices that are once again on view to the pub­lic in an actual museum! My personal hope is that a Catalog of this exhibit will one day be bound in print as a library companion to The Bryant and May Catalog. There is abundant symmetry in such an idea.

If you have a copy of Ad Van Weert’s book, The Legend Of The Lighter wherein it examines the early and pre-20th century lighters or if you have a copy of The Bryant and May Catalog of Fire-Making Devices (some of the original Bidwell pieces are within this exhibit), then you have a glimpse of the scope of this project. But to see our lighter relics within inches of your grasp, in their fully dimensional glory, is quite a sight. Not just photos from a 1926 (or 1910 original copy) B & M book but surviving pieces from our past old enough to have been considered an antique worthy of inclusion in the B & M exhibit, itself now 100 years old.

Imagining the effort of Edward Bidwell’s hunt will afford some idea of the added perseverance and tenacity it required for Tom to amass his trove so many generations later. To varying degrees, we can all build a solid collection but Tom has done so with a focus and all-encompassing plan. That plan included devoting the time to research and seek in-depth knowledge. Miller Christy noted in his forward to the Catalog (referring to Bidwell but equally appli­cable to Mr. O’Key)

“The history of the means devised by Man throughout the ages for creating fire, whenever and wherever he had need of it, forms, therefore, a most interesting study; and the extraordinary variety of the methods he employed for effecting this affords a measure of the importance of the matter to him.”

Absent further extensions, this exhibit will have closed by the time this article reaches you. However, there is talk of taking the exhibit on the road as well as making a DVD available. Watch for updates or announcements that this exhibit may appear within driving distance of your home. I doubt you will have another opportunity to view works of inventors who shared your love for lighters hundreds of years earlier. There is an energy that emanates from these lighters that builds respect, that connects us and draws us into their history and it cannot be defied. In full measure, this exhibit quenches our Quest For Fire.

Guy Nishida

Extremely rare Dobereiner lighters in figural forms dating to the mid 19th century


Photographs taken with a Lunt scope and Sony HD camcorder in H alpha

Some views I photographed on June 5, 2012

Sunset and Venus in transit from Joshua Tree CA.