One evening in 1933, above a garage in Bradford, Pennsylvania, George G. Blaisdell clicked open the first ever Zippo lighter. That was more than 425 million Zippo lighters ago. Today in a world where products are redesigned on impulse rather than necessity, here is an iconic that, after almost 75 years, has hardly changed at all.
George Blaisdell, a cigarette lighter salesman, was not impressed with the products he was employed to sell. People didn't like the designs, they were cumbersome and the lighters never performed well on a windy day.
So George designed his own lighter. The lighter he created was rectangular in shape made from brass tubing with soldered tops and bottoms and square corners with a chrome-plated hinge soldered on the outside for easy opening and closing. Sized to fit comfortably in a hand, the lighter featured a windhood to protect the wick. Blaisdell liked the name of another recent invention, the zipper, so he christened his lighter the "Zippo".
He started manufacturing the lighter in a rented room over the Rickerson & Pryde garage in Bradford and he retailed his Zippo for $1.95 each. Next Blaisdell started thinking how to market them. First he gave each lighter a 'Lifetime Guarantee' and told customers that if for any reason the lighter became damaged or stopped working, he'd repair it for free. His repair clinic provided more than just customer goodwill. It also provided invaluable information about design flaws.
Next he started giving them away. First to long-distance bus drivers and tobacconists. Next to celebrities including the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle who then gave them away to servicemen overseas.
Pretty soon the Zippo became the favorite lighter of GIs, and stories about how the lighter performed in action began to unfold - the Zippo that stopped a bullet, the Zippo that cooked soup in a GI's helmet, the Zippo that illuminated the darkened instrument panel of an Army pilot's disabled plane.
And because the Zippo had so many celebrity fans it began making frequent appearances in Hollywood movies notably war movies, such as Casablanca. Today the lighter has made an appearance in more than 1,500 movies, stage plays and television shows.
These days the Zippo lighter is still backed by its famous lifetime guarantee, 'It works or we fix it for free.' In almost 75 years, no one has ever spent a penny on the mechanical repair of a Zippo lighter regardless of the lighter's age or condition.
The Zippo is a piece of design that looks great, works great and if you've got time on your hands, you can do some pretty neat tricks with it.
John Fountain is a freelance copywriter.