History of the Spark-Lite™ Firestarter
(and a biography of the inventor)
By John D. McCann
The Spark-Lite™ Firestarter is a very unique fire starting device, and the first one-handed firestarter. I have seen various references made to the origin of this device, from "it was developed by the military" to "the Spark-Lite Firestarter, made by ...". I felt that the credit for this unique fire starting device should be given to the individual that actually invented it, designed it, and has been manufacturing it ever since.
The Spark-Lite™ Firestarter was the invention of Oak Duke Norton, Jr. Oak was in the US Army, serving first in Korea, and then in Vietnam in 1963, 1967 & 1968. While there, he discovered that the issue lighter in survival kits often leaked and, as with matches, unless they were sealed in a waterproof container, proved useless.
When Oak retired in 1973, after serving 24 years, he became involved with the Scouting program, as well as the Civil Air Patrol Search & Rescue operation. During these activities, Oak observed the same problems he had in Vietnam; damp matches and lighters that failed to operate. He began experimenting, looking for something smaller than the heavy magnesium bar that was currently in use. He wanted something that would create a spark for ignition, and also be waterproof. Sometime in 1979, Oak created a small two-handed model device which was very useful, and he called it the Spark-Lite™. It was called a two-handed model because it was held between the thumb and forefinger on one hand, and the knob was spun with the thumb and forefinger of the second hand, to create the sparks. It is still very effective today. The following photographs are taken of the original two-hand strikers which are from my private collection.
At the same time Oak was working on developing the Spark-Lite™, he was also working on producing a tinder that would fit in a small plastic box which would hold the Spark-Lite™ and eight pieces of tinder. To make a long story short, it started with a toothache, and while visiting a dentist he discovered a roll of cotton that gave him the idea for Tinder-Quick™ Fire Tabs, which is also Oak's invention. After experimenting with various cotton rolls, he worked with a company to develop a wax formula that would provide ideal ignition from sparks, generated from the Spark-Lite™, and also provide waterproofing. Tinder-Quick™ was born, and Oak had an effective fire starting system.
Oak also envisioned a one-handed model. In 1984, when he finally had a concept for a one-handed model, he visited a commercial printer and asked for someone with expertise in mechanical drawing. He was given the name of a company and visited their office. He was asked to do a rough sketch of what he had in mind. Shortly afterwards, he had a finished mechanical drawing to work with. He took that drawing to an engineering firm and had them make a brass model from the sketch. The original prototype was round and was difficult to hold when trying to spin the striker wheel, so Oak went back to the drawing board.
Oak felt that if the device was square, it would be easier to hold between two fingers, while spinning the striker wheel with a third finger. This new square prototype was tested and Oak found that it worked very well. This original device had a small screw at the bottom, so the flint could be replaced. In 1985, he had a number of them made and sent them to several dealers to see if they would be interested in carrying the product. The following photos show one of the original Brass Spark-Lites™ from my personal collection.
Somehow, the Army Research Institute at Natick, MA got hold of one of these early models and contacted Oak for further information. Oak visited the institute and discussed the product with them. They liked it, but it was heavy. They wanted it to be made out of plastic. If he could have them made from plastic they would take 24 to be field tested.
Oak's next step was to locate a factory that would create the mold and make the finished product out of plastic. When this was accomplished, Oak sent the units to the Army Research Institute for testing. Several of those first units were then forwarded to Alaska and Florida for testing. After a few weeks, Oak was contacted by the Army and they placed an initial order for 28,000 Spark-Lites™. They liked the fact the device permitted a person with an injured hand or arm to work the device with just one hand. In the meantime, Oak named the device the "Spark-Lite". He named his Company "Four Seasons Survival" and has been manufacturing them ever since.
In 2007, Oak started working on a new Spark-Lite™, made from aluminum, and it has a small hex socket head screw on the bottom for replacing the flint, which can be removed with an Allen Wrench. He had some prototypes of this model made in anodized green and orange (looks brown). Unfortunately, the manufacturing costs were too high, and unless Oak can have the manufacturing cost brought down, he feels the cost would be to high to the end user. The following photographs are of a pair of the aluminum prototypes from my personal collection.
As of 2008, Oak has sold the military over 200,000 Spark-Lites™, and approximately the same number commercially. The plastic Spark-Lite is available in either olive green or florescent (hunter) orange. They have a lifetime guarantee to ensure that customers will always be satisfied with the product. There you have it. The real story of the development of the Spark-Lite™ firestarter. Oak Norton, Jr. turns 80 this year and is still going strong! Hope you enjoyed it.
If you are interested in purchasing the Spark-Lite™ Firestarter, CLICK HERE.