On a warm summer day 171 years ago, a young man named Robert Edwin Dietz gave up his job at a hardware store in New York to buy a struggling lamp company. He had been experimenting with lamps since he was a teenager, trying to figure out how to make them brighter. Now, at the ripe old age of 22, he was ready to put his ideas into practice. He was a true entrepreneur with a dream and the guts to pursue it.
By the end of his first year in business, he had saved up $600 (about $14,000 in today’s dollars). By the end of the second year, he decided he was busy enough to take on a partner, his older brother William. In 1845, their fledgling company made the jump from simple candle lanterns to more complicated lanterns that burned sperm whale oil.
The next 15 years brought him many personal and business successes. He married in 1846 and had two daughters and five sons. His lanterns often featured improved designs, and he expanded his line to include fancy chandeliers. His lights were used at the New York premier of world famous opera singer, Jenny Lind.
In 1857, Dietz & Company continued its innovating ways by patenting the first flat-wick burner capable of burning kerosene. Their design was the precursor of every kerosene lamp burner in use today. And, they were making the leap from whale oil to less expensive and more practical coal oil (a close cousin of modern day kerosene).
The Dietz patent’s claim to fame was improved air flow in the lantern, which they said would produce a brighter flame with less flickering. The idea that improving air flow could improve the quality of the light became central to many of their innovations. And this innovation came at just the right time. In 1859, Edwin Drake found oil in Pennsylvania and inexpensive coal oil became affordable to America’s growing middle class.
Fueled by success, they soon opened their first international office, in London. During the Gold Rush, they opened a sales office in San Francisco, earning a place in American history. To this day, nearly every movie about the Wild West shows Dietz lanterns in use (although often the wrong model for the time period being depicted). Dietz lanterns exist in practically every mine, ranch and farm across our country.
Dietz was a true family business, as Robert Dietz first hired then partnered with each of his four brothers, William, Samuel, James and Michael. But, it appears that all was not well in the family partnership. In 1868, Robert sold his share of the company at a loss to his brother James and immediately started a new lamp company, which would eventually become the R.E Dietz company of today.
Ever the model entrepreneur, it seems that Robert Dietz was better at pursuing his own ideas and innovating his way to success than getting along with his own family. Without the inventive hand of Robert at the controls, and crippled by a devastating fire, James’ company, the original maker of Dietz lanterns, soon went out of business.
Meanwhile, another young man, John Irwin, was doing some innovating of his own. After hearing his father complain about lanterns that blew out when they were moved, he holed up in their family tool shed for three days to design a solution. His invention, the Hot Blast Tubular lantern was patented in 1868.
Because Robert Dietz understood how proper air flow can improve a lamp’s performance, he had soon acquired the rights to manufacture the new lantern. Since consumers viewed the new design as awkward and ungainly, sales the first year were slow. But, within a few years, Robert boasted, they were selling thousands of dozens. The lanterns sold by word of mouth because they outperformed anything on the market. And, soon Hot Blast lanterns (or imitations) were practically the only type of lanterns sold.
At about the same time, Dietz hired his oldest son, Frederick, to help in the plant as a receiving clerk. Fred went on to become an adviser, confidant and ultimately the successor to Robert at the RE Dietz company.
Dietz, meanwhile, continued to innovate. John Irwin established a laboratory, ironically named Faraday Park. (Michael Faraday was one of the inventors who helped discover how electricity could be used.) RE Dietz was the first company to use steam power to run the massive presses needed to make steel lamp bases.
Robert Dietz applied his innovative spirit to business operations, too. One of his marketing gimmicks was delivering silver-plated commemorative lanterns to the celebrities of his day. He kept his company going after one factory was lost to eminent domain, another burned down and still another collapsed.
He beat out competitor after competitor, surviving the economic depressions that crushed their businesses. Those he couldn’t beat, he bought out. When he found a design that was better than what he could invent, he licensed the right to manufacture it himself.
And, he continued his cantankerous ways, too. He sued a business partner. He blamed his collapsed building on an irresponsible building who, he said, built on “quicksand.” He pressed charges against a trusted employee who, it was later proven, stole more than $20,000 from Dietz. His lamps were often imitated without permission, and whenever he found a copy, he tracked down the manufacturer and sued them to stop. He used the full power of the law to defend his brand.
Although he apparently couldn’t get along very well with his brothers, he ultimately made his oldest son Frederick and a younger son, John, partners. In 1886, his company was legally incorporated with paid in capital of $1,000,000, or about $25 million in today’s dollars. Most likely, he couldn’t have imagined what the future held for his new company.
To see today’s selection of Dietz lanterns, click here.
Read about how Dietz took America by storm. Click here.
Discover how Dietz managed to survive The Great Depression. Click here.