Flashback: The history of Seattle police officers’ lifesaving lanterns

SEATTLE -- Think about being a cop working the night shift back in the days before electricity. Taking on a bad guy in the dark is never a good idea. Seattle officer Jim Ritter shows us the lifesaving lanterns police have used through history ... in tonight's "flashback." "Finding your way around in the dark can be a frustrating and hazardous task. If you were a policeman in the 1880s, doing so could cost you your life.

"Remember, 130 years ago city streets were poorly lit and dark alleys were a dangerous haven for criminals. To make their jobs safer, police carried lanterns to light their way. These are some great examples of original lanterns from the Seattle area. This lantern is called a 'Dark Lantern.' It is basically filled with fuel. There is a magnifying lens here and a great little handle to hold onto. The only problem with this is if you had to fight with someone or make an arrest, you had to put the lantern down. "This example is one of my favorite lanterns. This is an original police lantern from the Seattle Police Department from 1887. It is filled with whale oil. You've got a wick here that is lit by a flint, and the officer could either carry it or this handy little hook could hook onto his belt and he could be hands-free. "In addition to seeing their way around the streets and the alleys, police officers relied on lanterns to light their way in dangerous indoor areas as well. An example of this is the Seattle City Jail, which in 1900 was a very, very dangerous place with many criminals and only one jailer. The jailer would make his rounds by lighting this lantern and walking through the cavernous jail by himself at his own risk. "Lanterns, even though they were useful and the best technology at the time, they were incredibly dangerous. When you have a fuel source with an open flame, many fires were started that not only burned down buildings, but also caught officer's uniforms on fire as well. "In 1898, the flashlight was invented. The flashlight, even though it was available to the public, was very expensive. Most police officers could not afford it and did not purchase them immediately. As the years went on they became cheaper and more available. Even though flashlights were available for police use, even as late as the 1920s, the Washington State Patrol still chose to use lanterns, not to see their way around, but at accident scenes. "This is an original Washington State Patrol lantern from the 1920s. It basically has a fuel source on the bottom and a red lens. This was designed before they invented flares for motorists to recognize accident scenes upon approach. "These are all great examples of police technology. And even though police lanterns became obsolete many years ago, they clearly played an important role in keeping our police officers safe during some very dangerous times." If you have questions about law enforcement history, email Ofc. Ritter at smpmuseum@aol.com To find out more about the museum, go to seametropolicemuseum.org