April 18, 2012
Filed under Feature Stories
In an age where lighting sources for the outdoor adventurer can be powered by the sun, it’s hard to imagine a time when doing anything outside after dark was a challenge. In the late 1800s, all of that changed when a traveling salesman, William (W.C.) Coleman, had an epiphany that forever altered the outdoor lighting sources people commonly used.
In 1899, Coleman, a young law student from Kansas who made his living selling typewriters door-to-door, was traveling through Brockton, Alabama. He noticed an exceptionally bright light coming from a drug store. The light shining through the fog was a hanging lamp; significant because it was the first lighting device that was bright enough for him to read by at night – burning with a strong, steady white flame and fueled by gasoline. Predecessors to this light were kerosene-burning lamps that produced a smoky, yellowish light.
Like any good salesman, coupled with his inventiveness, Coleman was his own best customer. He had bad eyesight, traveled at night for his work was always on the go, and needed better lighting. Clearly a man ahead of his time, Coleman understood the need for good lighting to have mobile capabilities. He also saw a market opportunity to service the needs of rural America, where electricity was not common at the time. So, he set out to invent a newer form of lighting that was portable, reliable and allowed people to continue doing outdoor activities even after the sun went down.
In 1900, Coleman established an official lighting service company in Kingfisher, Oklahoma known as the Hydro-Carbon Light Company, taking that observation of the new white light burning from that hanging drugstore lamp and expanding it into a business venture. However, after having purchased a large amount of inventory, Coleman found it difficult making sales due to an inferior lantern sold in the same area prior to his arrival. Customers who bought defective lamps from Coleman’s predecessor in the area were apprehensive about buying a similar product. To get over their distrust for the product, Coleman refocused his market strategy and decided to sell light as a guaranteed service (and not a product) for merchants. Customers loved the idea and the business was soon servicing areas as far west as San Diego.
In 1901, Coleman bought the patent for the Efficient Lamp and set out to improve the product’s design. At this time, he also moved to Wichita, Kansas, to expand his territory. By 1914, Coleman launched a lantern design that provided more light than any other product on the market. The Coleman lantern made a significant impact on the country as the first all-weather outdoor gasoline lantern. It became the genesis of Coleman’s camping business. A year later, the lantern proved so popular, the U.S. government declared it an essential item of World War I. Over 70,000 lanterns were distributed across the nation, allowing farmers and workers to extend their hours and produce items critical to the war effort.
With the success of the lantern’s convenience in full swing, Coleman started manufacturing gasoline stoves. In 1923, the company expanded its product line and the two-burner Coleman Camp Stove became a popular product with American travelers. The stove included a preheater, and was guaranteed to start and be ready to cook in two minutes. It burned regular gasoline and folded up into a suitcase for transport and storage. The stove was designed in black to match Model T Fords.
Coleman’s place in history is also noted by his contributions to the World War II effort by providing U.S. Army troops with the G.I. Pocket Stove that journalist Ernie Pyle noted in over 15 news articles. Coleman’s invention – a pocket stove smaller than a quart of milk, weighing 3.5 pounds – allowed field troops to cook their meals in a wide range of weather conditions with all kinds of fuel. Pyle even went so far as to consider the pocket stove one of the two most important pieces of noncombat equipment in the war effort. (The other being the Jeep.)
The impact of W.C. Coleman as an outdoor business man and inventor is evidenced by the sheer popularity of his products still in use over a century later (50 million of the famous Coleman lanterns were produced by 1995); the immense impact he had on empowering rural America and the new generation of car-traveling Americans to cook and have lighting that complemented their mobile lifestyles; and his critical support of gearing up the U.S. Army troops in both World Wars. But, a 1949 Saturday Evening Post interview gives us a clue as to the true iconic nature of W.C. Coleman. Coleman commented that he built his business by relying on two principles: “Whatever one manufactures or attempts to sell must be the best of its kind,” Coleman explained. “Nothing is ever sold until it adequately performs the purpose for which it was intended and gives value-received to the consumer.”