How the Petromax works

A History of the Petromax Lantern and the Graetz Family

On January 1st, 1865, Albert Graetz (1831-1901) and Johann Simon founded the "Lampen- und Metalldruckwaren-Fabrik Graetz & Simon OHG" (Lamp and metal-forming factory Graetz & Simon Ltd.) in Jakobsstraße 20 in Berlin. This was the beginning of one of the great success stories of German lighting industry.

After a short time Graetz separated from his partner Johann Simon and joined Emil Ehrich on October 20, 1865 as registered manager in his Berlin company "Emil Ehrich - Handlung mit Lampen und Metalldruckwaren" at Dresdener Str. 77. On 1.1.1866 Albert Graetz became an associate partner and the company changed its name to "Ehrich & Graetz OHG".

As a master plumber, Albert Graetz had chosen the right field of activity at the right time. It was time to replace the vegetable oil lamps -that Albert Graetz disparagingly referred to as "dim light"- with improved luminaires. The heyday of paraffin lamps had just begun.

After Emil Ehrich's death in 1887, the Ehrich & Graetz OHG company was dissolved and newly founded under the same name on October 20, 1887 with the three co-owners Albert Graetz and his sons Adolf (1860-1909) and Max (1861-1936).

With great success Ehrich & Graetz produced air-draft paraffin lamps and paraffin heater under the brand names "Triumphlampe", "Akaria", "Matador" and "Iris".

Kommerzienrat Max Graetz
Kommerzienrat Max Graetz

Max Graetz, an inventor and athlete, was well versed in the latest manufacturing methods, having spent prolonged periods in the United States from the age of 17 (at a later stay in the US he eventually made the acquaintance of Henry Ford). Along with his brother Adolf, a worldly-wise distributor, the two successfully assumed leadership of the company, which soon became well known worldwide, thanks to extensive exportation of its products. By 1899, the year the company moved to Elsen Strasse (Street) in the Berlin suburb of Treptow, the company employed 1000 workers, as compared to only 100 laborers ten years previously. Yet more factories were later founded in Bridgeport (Connecticut), London, and Paris. On November 9th, 1911, the German emperor bestowed the highest civil honorary title of "Kommerzienrat" upon the Graetz family name (a dignity for which Max was charged 3000 goldmarks, however).

Max Graetz was the driving force behind the technical design and development of new products. In 1905 the "Graetzin-Gasanzuender" (Graetz gas igniter) was developed, an impulse ignition system which eliminated the necessity for manual ignition of coal-gas street lamps.

Graetz Esso Graetzin Graetz Elektro

In 1908, an electric light bulb was introduced, under the brand name "Esso". In 1909, a coal-gas fueled incandescent (Welsbach mantel) lamp was developed, named the "Graetzin-Licht" (Graetz- Light). Along with the already commonplace alcohol-fueled incandescent mantel lamps, the "Graetzin-Licht" design helped provide the inspiration for a completely new type of light developed in 1910.

For this, a portable lantern, Graetz used liquid kerosene as a fuel, instead of coal-gas. In a similar manner to the earlier "Graetzin-Licht", vaporized fuel was mixed with a measured amount of air, and ignited to produce a hot and clean blue flame, which in turn heated an attached mantle to the point of strong incandescence (light emission). Compressed air in an attached fuel tank was used to force the liquid kerosene up into a vertical "vaporizer" (or "generator", as it is sometimes called) located very close to the superheated mantle. At this location the kerosene was heated to the point of vaporization, thus providing the gaseous fuel necessary for the lantern's continued operation. The new design proved to be reliable, safe, and easily portable. Depending on the actual size and configuration of the individual unit, effective light output levels from 200 to 1000 candlepower were possible.

Max Graetz was nicknamed "Petrol-Max" by his friends, singer/musician Paul Lincke and the locally celebrated composer Eugen d'Albert, both of Berlin. In turn, it was Paul Lincke who proposed that the new lantern design be called the


instead of "Graetzin-Licht".

On Nov. 5th, 1920, the "Petromax" name was registered as a trademark. Later, on April 9th, 1921, Max Graetz applied for the patent to a refined lantern design using a vertical vaporizer. Thus was born the "Petromax" lantern in the form we are familiar with today. From the outset, the "Petromax" was manufactured in various configurations and sizes, with maximum possible light output varying accordingly. The design was a great success, becoming a worldwide bestseller and boasting production running well into the millions of units. As a side note of interest, in providing a surface treatment for their lanterns, the Graetz company pioneered the modern chromium/nickel plating process, still in use today.

Following Germany's surrender at the end of World War One, the company's foreign factories were lost, and the Ehrich and Graetz Company had to fight for economic survival. However, these hard times were overcome and in the 1920's, new factories were built in Lunzenau/Rochlitz (Saxonia), and in the Austrian Bregenz at the Bodensee.

On May 20th, 1922, the "Ehrich und Graetz AG" (Erich and Graetz Corporation) was created. The principal shareholders were Max Graetz, his sons Erich, Fritz, Hans, and Rudolf Graetz, and son-in-law Hans Pahl. Max's sons Erich and Fritz had joined the company earlier, in 1910, and once again the cooperation between engineering design and sales/distribution carried the company forward. Erich Graetz helped to further the development of electrical products for the company. Beginning in 1913, different types of electrical appliances, such as clothes irons, hot-water kettles, and portable space heaters under the brand name of "Graetzor" were introduced.

In 1928 the "AIDA Gesellschaft für Beleuchtung und Heizung GmbH" (Company for lighting and heating Ltd.) was founded. This company took over from J.Hirschhorn AG, which had belonged to R.Frister AG since 1923, the complete "trading business with lighting and radiators for liquid fuels". 1/6 of the partners in this company were Hans Pahl, Max Graetz's son-in-law and 5/6 J.Hirschhorn AG. Managing directors were Hans Pahl and Julius Fürstenheim, the grandson of Jakob Hirschhorn. On the same day, J.Hischhorn AG sold all shares to Ehrich & Graetz AG. With this new company, Ehrich & Graetz AG secured access to all relevant tools, employees, sales channels, patents and trademarks of J.Hirschhorn AG, especially the "AIDA" brand.

It was Erich Graetz who introduced the famous Graetz radios of the thirties, following years of experimentation and refinement. The 1930's were doubtlessly the golden years for the "Petromax" lantern, and the Graetz company along with it. On May 9, 1935, a patent was applied for the design of the now familiar kerosene preheater "blowtorch" mounted on the lantern's side. This final configuration was trademarked under the name "Petromax Rapid" on Feb. 13, 1936, and effectively completed the lantern design and gave the distinctive appearance which it retains to this day.

In 1942, the "Ehrich und Graetz AG" name was changed to simply "Graetz AG". This occurred at presumably the same time that the "AIDA, Gesellschaft fur Beleuchtung und Heizung AG" (AIDA Company for Heating and Lights), up till then a part of the competitor company "Jacob Hirschhorn AG", was acquired by the Greatz corporation. Pressure lamps and lanterns continued to be produced and distributed under the brand name of "AIDA", however. By this time, the Graetz corporation effectively ruled the world market for kerosene-fueled pressure lamps and lanterns, controlling a market share of 80%.

Graetz plant in Berlin Treptow
Graetz plant in Berlin Treptow

However, following the Russian invasion of Germany at the end of World War Two, the Graetz family was left with virtually nothing, thanks to the Soviet expropriation of the main plant in east Berlin along with the family estate at Ostprignitz Brandenburg, and compulsory Soviet management of the factory in Bregenz. Thus, in 1947 brothers Erich and Fritz Graetz, along with three other workers, initiated the beginnings of a new production line in a vacant barracks located in the Westphalian Altena (West Germany). While the original company had always been family owned, this new company, under the name of "Graetz KG" (Graetz, Limited ), was funded with investment money (stock sales) from the public.

Fritz Graetz Erich Graetz
Fritz Graetz and Erich Graetz

Meanwhile, the original "Graetz AG" company, expropriated by the Soviets, continued to operate in East Germany. In 1945, following the formal end of World War 2, production of the Petromax lantern was continued in the old Berlin plant, this time under communist management, headed by a former pipelayer and staffed by a greatly reduced workforce of only 40 laborers. By February 8, 1948, the old Berlin factories were renamed "VEB Graetz Werk" (People's Enterprise Graetz Factory), and again on February 4, 1950, the name was changed to "VEB Fernmeldetechnik Treptow" (People's Enterprise Communications Factory Treptow), reflecting the manufacturing plant's shift to a primary emphasis in telecommunications equipment. All production of the Petromax lantern in East Berlin ceased shortly thereafter.

Back in West Germany, however, "Graetz KG" managed a remarkable comeback throughout the 1950's and 1960's. Following the manufacture of their first new Petromax lantern in the fall of 1949, production rates rose to the hundreds-of – thousands in early 1950's, and into the millions thereafter. 99% of this production was exported abroad, while the remainder was sold to the German Federal Railways, the German Federal Postal Administration, and in-country construction companies. The growth of the Graetz company led to the creation of several new factories in Altena, with branches in Bochum, Dortmund, Letmathe, Duderstadt, and Geroldsgruen, along with a compliment of 5000 laborers. By this time, however, the Graetz company had evolved into a firm that was primarily concerned with electronics, and in which the Petromax lantern and related products played only a very small part. During the 1950's, the "Petromax" brand name (trademark) was held by the "Graetz AG" of Hamburg in West Germany, a non-manufacturing successor company to the old Berlin "Graetz AG", until 1959 when the brand name rights were acquired by "Graetz KG". Also in 1959, the "AIDA Company for Heating and Lighting" was combined wholly with the "Graetz KG", and thus ceased to exist as an independent company.

Graetz plant in Altena/Westfalen
Graetz plant in Altena/Westfalen

In early 1961, Erich Graetz, having no family successor to take over the company, sold 74.5% of "Graetz KG" to the high-bidding "SEL" (Standard- Elektronik-Lorenz AG) (the "Phillips" corporation also being a bidder). The remaining 25.5% of the shares were held by the "Westfaelische Kupfer-und Messing-Werke AG" (Westfaeli Copper and Brass Factories Corporation), as a purely speculative investment holding. "SEL", in turn, eventually sold the factories to "Nokia", of Finland. At the Altena factories, the Petromax lantern continued to be built in to the 1970's. Currently, however, the Altena factories are closed and after some years of production in Portugal the "Petromax" lantern is now manufactured by a Chinese company in Kaiping.
The days of the famous "Petromax" seem to be numbered. It's a pity.

Thanks to John Baldessari and all the other kind helpers for this translation!

Copyright Jürgen Breidenstein | All rights reserved. Images: Graetz-Nachrichten

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  How the Petromax works