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Lighting The Way to Flashlights
written by Mike Roux

How to pick a flashlight for your nighttime excursions.
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Modern flashlights come in a variety of colors and sizes.



If you had to find something in the dark before the 1890's, you most likely used a candle or kerosene lantern. This process led to uncountable accidents and immeasurable fire damage. There was definitely a need for something better -- and safer. Inventor Conrad Hubert solved the problem when he lit-up New York City in 1896 with the first dry-cell battery powered "electric hand torch." He obtained the first patent on what is now known as the "flashlight" in 1898.


The term flashlight originated because the early carbon filament bulbs were inefficient and the batteries were weak. The use of these early versions could produce light for only a few seconds before having to turn the light off. Hence, a flash of light is all these first devices could muster.


The first flashlights were hand-made from crude paper and fiber tubes, with a bulb and rough brass contacts.


The piece of plastic, coated with a shiny aluminum layer that rests around the bulb is called the reflector. This component reflects light rays from the bulb to allow a steady light beam, which is what you see coming from a flashlight.


The bulb, or lamp, is the source of light in a flashlight. It contains a tungsten filament that glows when electricity flows through it. This glow is in the form of visible light. Tungsten is a natural element and the filament is nothing more than a very thin wire. There was no on/off switch. There was merely a ring or tab that would push against a metal button. As the technology for stronger bulbs and longer lasting batteries evolved, a reliable on/off switch became more important.


Overall flashlight technology took a huge leap forward in 1910 with the introduction of nickel-plated tubes and tungsten filament bulbs. The sales pitch for these lights read; "The light that does not flicker in a draft, extinguish in a wind and is controlled instantly by finger pressure."


Today's modern flashlights are similar in style to the first ones ever made. However, the materials used to make flashlights has made great progress. Whether you are outdoors for a nighttime adventure or find yourself in the dark from a power outage after a storm, the convenience of a portable, lightweight, dependable light source is one our most modern achievements.


Some flashlights have changeable lenses of varying colors.

Most people never consider just how a flashlight works, as long as it comes on when they hit the switch.  There are seven main components that combine to make a flashlight work.  First is the case.  This is the tube that houses the other components, including the batteries and the bulb.  Many of the flashlights you find will have an aluminum casing.  These are common because of their resistance to corrosion and low weight.  Others are rubber "armor coated" and some come with dense thermoplastic housings.  Stay away from flashlights that come with flimsy plastic casings. 


Next come the contacts.  This is a very thin spring or strip of metal, most commonly copper or brass, that is located throughout the flashlight.  This metal makes the electrical connection between the batteries, the bulb and the switch.  The contacts conduct electricity and complete the circuit making everything work.


The switch activates the flow of electricity when pushed "on."  Pushing the switch to "off" interrupts that flow and the light turns off.  Thereare difffernt types of switches on flashlights too.  On some models there is a positive "push" button on the casing or the endcap.  Other models require you to rotate the head of the flashlight to turn it on.  Neither one is better than that other -- some of the "head rotating" switches are built that way because they have adjustable beams to go from "spot" to "flood."  Some flashlights like the popular Maglite have both a push button switch and an adjustable head. 


To protect the bulb, which is a very fragile glass device, a lens is placed over the filament in a flashlight.  This is usually a clear plastic, and some more expensive models come with scratchproof lens.  Some flashlights have changeable lenses of varying colors.  These lenses have special applications used mostly in military flashlights, or "torches," but many hunters have found that blue filters work well for tracking blood trails of wounded game at night. 


Last but not least are the batteries.  The batteries store the electricity needed to make the filament glow, thus producing the light.


For "hands free" lighting, a headlamp is the perfect choice. 


So now that you know where flashlights came from and how they work, how do you go about choosing a flashlight that will meet your specific needs?  Most households in America have an ordinary inexpensive flashlight in the toolbox or in the junk drawer.  You will also see a lot of these two D-cell flashlights in emergency car kits.  

One light will not solve all of your "I need some light" situations.  If you're camping, you're going to need a bright,  durable light to use around camp.  If you are working under the hood of your vehicle, or night-fishing, a small flashlight or headlamp might be perfect for you..  But if "Spot" runs off in the night a small, or cheap D-cell light will not tell you if that animal at the end of the block is your lost dog or a wandering raccoon.  

A two- or three-cell light should be in every vehicle you have.  You shouldn't have to pay a lot for this light, but remember that like everything else, you get what you pay for.  You may want to consider a large 4 cell light in your vehicle for true emergencies or possibly even have a larger light in your garage or near your backdoor for when you need lots of light and need it fast.  With these larger lights you can easily tell Spot from a raccoon and a pile of leaves from someone hiding in your bushes.


Today there more brands and styles of flashlights than could be covered in ten articles.  Your choices are virtually endless.  But there three main points I would like to stress to you as you consider purchasing any flashligh -- durability, efficiency, and light output.


You can also find good flashlights to fit most any budget.  You can spend $10 and get a fine junk draw flashlight for looking under appliances.  Once you get above the $20 range your choices become more complex and more competitive.  You can even purchase flashlights that cost $100-$200, but these are heavy-duty utility lights, sports lights, and work lights -- many of them built for law enforcement and military personnel.  These lights are built to very high tolerances and can take the punishment associated with these professions.  It may seem like a lot for a flashlight, but once you've used a high-quality flashlight, you'll see why they cost more than conventional "household" flashlights.   

Another option to consider in hand-held lights are the rechargeable models.


Another option to consider in hand-held lights are the rechargeable models.  They are bright, long lasting and dependable.  A good thing about rechargeable lights is, obviously, there is no battery expense involved.   But that savings is not actual because the initial cost of a rechargeable unit is usually 3 to 4 times that of battery dependent models.  You do have to plug-in rechargeable lights to renew their energy and some only last about 2-hours.


In the past few years there has been a great deal of attention given to flashlights with LED (light emitting diode) technology.  The LED lights are small, durable and easy on batteries, and can up to 10 years before burning out.  The field of LED lights is growing tremendously now and the price of these great flashlights are coming down enough to be very affordable to outdoor consumers.  Some companies are offering the best of both worlds with flashlights and headlamps featuring both LED lights and conventional bulbs. 


An the opposite side of the spectrum are Lithium lights.  These are expensive, don't have a long battery life, and burn out easier.  The bright side is that they are extremely bright. 


Once you have chosen and purchased your new flashlight, take care of it.  Regardless of its cost, a little maintenance can go a long way.  In dry cell lights, once a month you should remove the batteries.  You then use a pencil eraser and scrub both terminals of each battery.  If you can get to the contact points and bottom spring in the light, scrub them with the eraser, too.  If your batteries show any sign of leakage, replace them. 


You should replace flashlight batteries every six months whether you have used the light or not.  This is very important for the flashlight you carry in your vehicle.  The extremes in temperatures inside you car or truck are very destructive on your flashlight's batteries.  And as we all know, when you really need a flashlight is the exact time they do not work.  It is not the fault of the light.  It is our fault for not maintaining a tool we might need in an emergency.  I suggest you tune-up your vehicle's flashlight every time you tune-up your vehicle.


Portable, hand-held lights came a long way in the past century.  Their evolution is surely not over.  That means that no matter what you need a flashlight for, there is one that will meet that need.

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