February 9, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
William Coleman

"What the average man needs is not a gasoline buggy or a good nickel cigar but light to read and work by." Especially a man with bad eyes like William Coffin Coleman, who spoke those words to explain the motivation behind the Coleman lantern.

Coleman was the son of schoolteachers who migrated west from New England in 1871, the year after his birth. Despite having no money Coleman entered the University of Kansas to study law. He survived on canned tomatoes, brown sugar and day-old bread but his funds ran out when Coleman was still one year short of his law degree.

He started selling typewriters and was on calls in the dusty coal town of Brockton, Alabama. As he walked down the board sidewalks he saw a brilliant light in a drugstore window, a glow so bright that even he, with his bad eyes, could read comfortably. The illumination was not from Mr. Edison's marvelous new invention but emanating from a gasoline-powered flame.

Coleman thought that this new light could replace smoky oil lights and flickering gas lights on America's farms, western towns and everywhere electricity had not yet reached. He invested all his money buying samples of the new-fangled Efficient Company lamp which burned gasoline under pressure. He took his new product line to Kingfisher, Oklahoma. It was January 1, 1900.

At the end of his first week he had sold two lamps. What was wrong? No one ever believed more vehemently in his product. Asking around he discovered that months earlier a predecessor had sold dozens of gasoline lamps in town that glowed brightly for a few days and then clogged with uncleanable carbon deposits. Coleman knew his lamp was better but how to prove it?

He would not sell lamps but light. He would become a one-man utility company. He leased his lamps for $1 a week. No light, No pay. The Kingfisher merchants couldn't refuse that deal. The lamps were reliable and sales boomed. The Hydro-Carbon Company was born.

He sold a $2000 interest in his business to two brothers-in-law and purchased the patent rights to the lamp and renamed it the Coleman Arc Lamp. He moved to Wichita where in 1905 Coleman Arc Lamps lighted the first night football game under artificial light as Fairmount College ground out a victory.

In 1909 he invented the Coleman table lamp. It was portable and could be carried anywhere. By adding bug screens the lamp could be used outside and in 1914 the first of over 30 million Coleman gasoline lanterns, usable in any weather, was built. The Coleman Lantern was named an essential product in World War I and Coleman sold one million to the government so farmers could work around the clock. The Coleman lantern went to the South Pole with Admiral Byrd.

President Roosevelt launched massive rural electrification projects during the Depression and Coleman's traditional markets disappeared. He took the company into oil heaters and gas floor furnaces, although ventures into home appliances failed. In World War II Coleman developed a compact stove for field use and after the war rode the wave of expanding interest in outdoor recreation with insulated coolers and jugs, tents, and sleeping bags.

In 1949 The Saturday Evening Post carried an article on William Coleman under the headline, "The Company That Should Have Gone Broke." But Coleman had always shown an innate ability to cope with change. At the time of his death in 1957 his company was the leading manufacturer of camping products and a major supplier to the mobile home industry.

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