I should start by saying that I like to know how things work. My curiosity, however is selective, I have a special fascination for human inventions, the simpler the better. A few weeks ago I helped open one of the gates of a canal lock and it was thrilling to feel that I was working with a device invented over 700 years ago that has changed little since. There I was pushing a gate that looked just like those seen in Leonardo da Vinci’s original design of 1497. However, while da Vinci’s lock system is one of my favourite inventions, there is another that I hold equally dear – the candle (see illustration). Like the lock, this too is an ingenious device, has a long history and its form has changed little since it was first used in China 3000 years ago!

It is the long dark nights of winter that prompted this ‘Ode to the Candle’, a gadget with its ingenious wick-and-wax design that has been unsurpassed in providing we humans with light for millenia. I am not interested in their added colours or complicated shapes nor in their various concocted scents (“Cologne for Men!”), I just love to watch candles as they burn, to see their glow, and to marvel at how they work. Indeed, the mechanism, with all its interlinking elements, could hardly be bettered. No need for any highfaluting chemistry or computer controlling system, the workings rely on the genius of how their different components interact – how simple and clever!

At first sight the candle looks so simple, just a thin stick of wax with a wick running through that protrudes a little at the top end and nowadays bends over to one side. But once the wick is lit, how it can provide enough steady light for hours of reading or working is magical. 

Its workings rely on three separate elements; first the wax stick which provides the fuel, secondly the wick which delivers the fuel in a measured way to the third element – the flame.   

Starting with the candle’s fuel cell. Any light provider needs an energy source, and here the energy comes, not from a fluid such as oil, petrol or kerosine but from a solid block of wax. By tradition the block has been made of whale fat or animal fat (tallow from beef or mutton) or, best of all, bees wax (as in the candle in the photo). In functional terms this fuel cell is portable, odourless, not explosive, light to carry and, when stored lasts for years – no use-by date here! Moreover, it remains cool throughout its length even when the wick is burning so it can act as a handle. Importantly, where the cell is made of bees wax, the candle flame produces neither smoke nor toxic fumes. In addition, bees wax, which is itself a renewable resource, burns so efficiently that there is rarely any fluid waste that would otherwise trickle down the candle’s sides. Here is an eco-friendly system of perfection.

Now to the wick, the “soul” of the candle which ‘holds’ the flame. It is usually made of a long ‘string’ of wax-impregnated cotton specially braided so that the exposed wick end bends over. To work well the wick needs to be a particular diameter (the thicker, the greater the light) and stiffness (it needs to keep its shape); paradoxically it must also be fire resistant. When the wick is lit, it melts the surrounding wax and by capillary action draws the molten wax up to be delivered in tiny amounts to the candle’s burning end; here the melted wax now vaporises and combusts. In the past, wicks needed regular trimming – long wicks produce more smoke and smells and increase the risk of fire; nowadays, wicks are ‘self trimming. By being bent, it’s tip rests not in the cooler central part of the flame but in one of the hotter side zones where it burns off – as the wick end burns it become bright red (see illustration).

Finally, the flame, which at its centre has a luminous yellow area that generates light. In fact the flame has several well-defined areas with varying temperatures and colours depending on the local oxygen supply and the rate at which the wick delivers its flammable wax vapour. The coolest part is in the central lower luminous area in which sits the wick; the hottest part is the blue-tinged veil which surrounds the upper part of the flame. It is in the veil that any waste is burnt off.

A good way of keeping in touch with the past is through the inventions that have been handed down. Reading by the light of a burning candle offers a perfect reminder.

The illustration shows a photo of a burning, bees wax candle made near our house in France; its golden colour is that of the wax itself.

For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Neil, Agate, Armelle, Sarah and Vivien.

18 thoughts on “Ode to the Candle

  1. Hi Joe
    I found that to be fascinating. I had no idea wicks were self trimming. By the way, I bought a mould a few years ago, and some wicks, and kept the wax from a beehive I have in my garden after I had extracted the honey. I made quite a few short, stocky candles in the shape of beehives. We slowly used one. I packed the others away in a plastic bag in a cupboard for future use. When I went searching for another candle a year or so later, I found that all of them had been attacked by wax moths, which had chewed their way through the plastic bag. The moths had laid eggs and their young had grown into large caterpillars which had left behind a mess of old wax and all sorts of detritus. I had provided them with a larder stuffed full of delicacies, and they were glad of it.
    Marc

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    1. Dear Marc, Thank you for your comments and your sad wax moth experience. I suppose you had moth-infested combs in your hive and they survived in the wax when you made the candles. It does seem to be an unusual problem for those trying to store candles. Love, Joe

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    1. Dear Rissoles, Thank you for your comment. It does seem to be the case that simple things have a special appeal. I wonder if this predilection is a cultural thing. Yours, Joe

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  2. The perfect scientific description of a simple object we take for granted. Thank you, Joe, for illuminating my ignorance. Happy New Year, Harold

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  3. Thank you Joe for this remarkably engrossing ode which opened my eyes in every sense of the word. It also wafted me off to look at examples of the homage paid to candlelight in paintings by the likes of James Wright and others, so I am doubly grateful. Happy New Year!

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  4. A lovely uplifting and informative blog, perfect on New Years Eve as it brings joy, hope and wonderment!

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  5. Dear Joe What an interesting and enlightening piece. I haven’t used candles for a long time and now I feel moved to get a nice beeswax candle.
    Happy new year!

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    1. Dear Andrea, Thank you for your comment. Before you first light your new wax candle, and if the wick is long, can I suggest you cut it down to one centimetre or so and gently bend it a little to one side? Love, Joe

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  6. HI Joe
    I loved your story. I always like to know how things work
    I recently read a book called 1434 by Gavin Menzies about the Chinese sending emissaries I think you would call them, around the world. This included visiting Italy and sharing their knowledge including maps and machine ideas. The book suggests the Chinese machines diagrams closely matched Leonardo’s ones – he did modify some things and turned them into models.

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    1. Dear Heather, Thank you for your comments. It is fascinating to think that the Chinese and Italians were exchanging ideas in the fifteenth century. However, for my own sake, I hope that the lock gate system was an invention of da Vinci. Love, Joe

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  7. Thank you Joe – others have commented on how illuminating it is – the perfect word. It has also appealed as one of my grouches is how difficult it can be to source beeswax candles – even top range shops fail to see and to market the benefits. Your blog is a reminder not to tolerate alternatives!

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    1. Dear TaracB, Thank you for your kind comments. Bees wax candles do exist, they just take some finding. Perhaps in Scotland they hide in craft shops. Good luck. Love, Joe

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