Richard Henry

Ditsong National Museum of Military History

Date: 19 June 2019


An interesting find

I came across an interesting item when I was identifying and listing all the items in the main store at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History as part of the Grap 103 project.  I did not know the purpose of the small Bakelite container of size 100 x 100 x 80mm.  I knew the Germans used many Bakelite items in the Second World War 1939-1945 but I did not know what this container was used for.  The accession number 2820 was checked in the accession register which read- Carbide carrier Germany.  This lead to further research, the results of which are recounted below.  

Discovery of Acetylene and production of calcium carbide

Acetylene was discovered accidentally in 1836 by Edmund Davy who identified it as a new hydrocarbon.  The name acetylene was suggested in 1860 by Berthelot who was the first to study the properties of the gas. The reaction of calcium carbide with water to produce Acetylene was discovered by Friedrich Wöhler in 1862.  In 1892 a Canadian, Thomas Willson accidentally discovered the first commercially viable process for making calcium carbide. He found that by placing lime in an electric arc furnace at 2 200 degrees centigrade and inserting a graphite rod, that the calcium in the lime would bond with the carbon from the graphite rod forming calcium carbide. In 1895 Willson sold his patent to Union Carbide.

Now Wohler’s invention of calcium carbide, combined with water, forming the gas acetylene was put to use.  Acetylene when burned in air, gave a light 10 -12 times brighter than any other source in use at the time.  Acetylene was first used in 1892 for the first motorcar headlamps.  A stone of calcium carbide was placed in a chamber and water dripped onto the calcium carbide, releasing acetylene gas.  This gas was led up a fine tube and lit.  A reflector at the back of the headlamp projected the light forward.  Dr Gustof Dalen later invented an automatic acetylene lighthouse and buoy.  A sun valve automatically controlled the flow of acetylene from a cylinder of dissolved acetylene.  This made it possible to have lighthouses and buoys in desolate areas with enough acetylene to last a year.  

In 1894 domestic lighting with acetylene gas was introduced and remained in use in rural areas and areas which were not electrified into the 1950s. The first bicycle lamps were introduced in 1896. Later carbide lamps were used in mining, motorcycle headlamps and military searchlights.


Bakelite was the first plastic made from synthetic components. Phenol mixed with formaldehyde produced a thermosetting resin which was revolutionary for its electrical non-conductivity and heat resistance properties. The Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland is accredited with the discovery which he named after himself in 1907. Baekeland’s original patent expired in 1927.  This allowed thousands of companies around the world to make Bakelite products either from the original formula or from a slightly different process.

German military use of Bakelite

Germany was quick to apply the new plastic technology to many military items.  These included machine gun butts, signal pistol grips, compasses, binocular cases, fat containers, rifle oil (Ballistol), water-bottle drinking cups, torches, whistles, and razors. One of these items made from Bakelite was a multipurpose carbide lantern.  The Bakelite container in question carried the carbide for this lantern. The lantern did however have a few parts made from zinc, aluminium and glass.  It was demagnetised to prevent interference with magnetic compasses.  

Preparation needed to light the lantern

A round carbide container, which also served as the lantern’s base was filled, up to the marked level on the inside with small lumps of dust free carbide lumps from the carbide container.  Then a perforated pressure cover with the pressure spring was connected, pointing upwards. On this spring was a perforated tube which pointed downwards into the lantern base. The filled carbide container was screwed firmly into the lantern, making sure that the sealing rubber washer was in place.  A zinc water container above the carbide container / base was filled had a drip needle inserted the container cap was removed it was filled with water and the cap replaced. A setscrew was turned to the left to allow water to drip into the carbide container.  The generated acetylene gas moved up the tube to the burner. The burner was lit and the flame adjusted to be about 8mm long.  If the lantern started to hiss, the setscrew was adjusted to regulate the water flow. A concave reflector projected most of the light forward.  The side glass panels however also allowed light to spread to the sides.  One filling of the lamp allowed for at least 8 hours burning.

Uses for the lantern

The lantern could be used for different purposes.  It could be dimmed or completely blacked out by using the zinc screens fitted into slots on the side of the lantern.  Another front screen had a slot cut out to concentrate the light in a narrow beam. Also on the front screen was a circular slide which could be regulated to give varying amounts of light.  A red or green glass pane could also be inserted in the front of the lantern if required for prearranged signalling. When not in use the screens were placed in a pocket at the rear on the lantern.  In the absence of carbide, a candle could be substituted.


These lanterns were used to light equipment and personnel shelters and dugouts.  Communications posts and administrative offices most certainly used them.  Railroad personnel and engineers working or protecting key bridges or engineering works also used these lanterns extensively. Sometimes even in the front lines, light was needed in closed vehicles and when commander need to work with maps and a compass. After use it was necessary empty the water, clean the carbide container, and use the special cleaning pin provided to unblock the burner hole.


The spare parts kit which came with each lantern contained seven candles, a candle holding tube and base plate.  There were four burners, cleaning pins in a small wooden case, rubber washers to seal against gas leakage, lubricant for the screw threads and a screw driver.  Two clear glass panes for the side and front of the lantern as well as a red and green front pane for signalling.  Lastly and instruction booklet was enclosed.

The Museum carbide container

Embossed in the top face of the Museum container was: Karbid!(Carbide) and the words Vor Nässe zu schützen (to protect from moisture). On the bottom of the container was the Waffenampt mark WaA 387 (weapons office 387) with a German eagle above it.  Inside the screw on cap were other important marks which needed research.

The Germans considered industrial standard to be most important.  Each article was to be marked, showing which company made the item, what it was made of and that it was produced to DIN standards (Deutsche Industrie Norm).A marking composed of the stylized combination of the letters M P and D was developed in 1938 to represent the Staatliches Materialprüfungsamt(State Materials Testing Office).  A logo, abbreviation, or code representing the manufacturer was to appear in the field above the M, while the field below the M was for the type of plastic and filler materials used.    

On the Museum container, the letter number code H4 was found in the top field. This was the code for Gerdes & Co., Schwelm i. Westf. (Westphalia).  The field below the M has the code Z2 was not found.



Weaver, DW. Kunststoffe A Collector’s Guide to German World War II Plastics and their Markings. Schiffer Military History Publications, Atglen, PA, USA, 2008.

US War Department.   Intelligence Bulletin, Vol II, No 10,  June 1944


Wikipedia         Calcium Carbide

Wikipedia         Carbide Lamp

National Historic Chemical Landmark; Discoveryof the Commercial Process for Making Calcium                                                              Carbide.  Pdf file, 18/6/2019

Tribolet, R O     The History of Acetylene14/6/2019

Wikipedia         Bakelite

Bakelite- Museum  Bakelite – The Material of a Thousand Uses, The Career of the first Real                                       Plastic