Q&A: Flashlight vs Torch


Q: Hey AWC, can we talk about something light this week?

A: Oh, we didn’t realise our chats were so heavy!

Q: No, I literally want to talk about lights.

A: Ahhhhh, well certainly. What’s the question?

Q: I’d like to know the difference between a “torch” and a “flashlight” please.

A: Oh, that’s easy. There is NO difference.

Q: Ugh, seriously? So why do we have two words for the same thing? 

A: Well, it’s a simple geography one – Americans call portable lights “flashlights” and the rest of the world calls them “torches”.

Q: It seems like such a simple thing – why did we end up with two words?

A: A very good question. The word “torch” of course originally involved fire – dating back to the 13th century, from the Old French “torche”, which itself was from the Latin “torquere” meaning to twist.

Q: To twist?

A: Yes. Clearly it’s where the modern word “torque” comes from, but also “torch”. This is because the part that would burn was made from twisted fibres dipped in wax.

Q: My uncle used to sell power tools with excellent rotation. He thought they were great, but my aunt said he was all torque.

A: Groan.

Q: He once evacuated the shop because he said someone was going to chainsaw through the wall. But it was just a drill.

A:  Please stop. 

Q: Okay, so “torch” was the flaming variety originally?

A: That’s right. If you were an angry mob, you’d reach for your pitchfork and your torch and off you’d go. No confusion.

Q: So what happened?

A: The invention of the dry cell battery happened. And hot on its heels, in 1899 a man in the US named David Misell patented the first portable light powered not by flame, but by battery. 

Q: Did he name it a “torch”?

A: He did not. In fact, his patent simply called it “Electric Device”. It was another man, Conrad Hubert, who in 1905 would name this invention the “flashlight”.

Q: I suppose it was probably quite flash for its time.

A: It has nothing to do with the adjective “flash”, which by the way had meant “smart” since 1812, but before that was actually a way to describe something vulgar or showy (this lives on partly through the word “flashy”).

Q: So why call it a “flash” light then?

A: It was related to the battery technology of the time. You see, the original batteries were made from an unreliable combo of zinc and carbon that didn’t keep a steady current. Combined with the carbon filament bulbs used, the original devices could not sustain the light for long periods. Instead, they would flash.

Q: Flashlights!

A: Makes sense, right?

Q: Yeah, I guess it does.

A: However, technology moves fast, and if Hubert had just waited a few more years, he would have seen the batteries and bulbs use more reliable materials that no longer needed to flash. But it was too late – the name “flashlight” had stuck and continues to be used in the USA and Canada to this day.

Q: Why didn’t the rest of the world call it the same thing?

A: In Britain, they instead called the device an “electric torch” – believing this to be a superior description to acknowledge the centuries-old flame-powered torches. Later, as the use of those died out, there was no need for a distinction, so the name was simply shortened to “torch”.

Q: So, the flame variety is still universally called a “torch”?

A: Yep. Americans will argue that this makes it confusing that we have the same name for the flashlight equivalent. Yet of course they’re persisting with a name for something that doesn’t flash anymore. Both names have their flaws.

Q:  So, to recap, the original term for a portable electric light was actually “flashlight”, not “torch”. But both are acceptable, depending on where you live.

A: That’s right!

Q: I bought one of those head torches the other day, but had to stop using it.

A: Oh, why?

Q: I was feeling light-headed.

A: Ughhhh.

Q: Then I convinced my nephew to swallow it. It was worth it to see his little face light up…

A: Oh dear.

Q: It’s fine. The doctors removed it and he was delighted.

A: Okay, we’re leaving…

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