Daily Archives: 22/05/2011

Candle in the wind

I’m not really into eBay, but some of my nearest and dearest are, so I’ve picked up enough to know roughly how the system works.  You offer something for sale, post a description, and wait for the bids to come in.  Bidding continues for a certain time, and when the time is up, the last bid clinches the auction.

So I was struck the other day to come across a reference to 17th century candle auctions, which operated on much the same principles as eBay.  Samuel Pepys worked for the Admiralty, and he knew what was going on amongst the shipping merchants in London.  On 6 November 1660 he describes the sale of two ships at the Navy Office ‘by an inch of candle (the first time that I ever saw any of this kind)’.

In the candle auction, bidding took place while a candle burned: either a candle stub one inch in length which burned itself out, or a candle with an inch marked on it with a pin or nail, which fell out when it reached the inch mark.

Just like on eBay, Pepys ‘observed how they do invite one another, and at last how they all do cry, and we have much to do to tell who did cry last.’  It’s a bit easier with computers, especially with the various ‘sniper’ programs that allow bidders to time their bids to the last few seconds of an eBay auction.

But even in Pepys’ day, there were canny snipers who knew how to time their final bid.  On 3 September 1662, he attended another auction of ships at the Navy Office.

‘After dinner by water to the office, and there we met and sold the Weymouth, Successe, and Fellowship hulkes, where pleasant to see how backward men are at first to bid; and yet when the candle is going out, how they bawl and dispute afterwards who bid the most first. And here I observed one man cunninger than the rest that was sure to bid the last man, and to carry it; and inquiring the reason, he told me that just as the flame goes out the smoke descends, which is a thing I never observed before, and by that he do know the instant when to bid last, which is very pretty.’

My original source for this, Steve Roud, The English Year (2006) says that ‘candle auctions are slow and inefficient, and only useful for sales in which not more than a handful of large lots are on offer.  For a modern-day sale in which hundreds of lots are rattled through, candle auctions would be completely inadequate.’

How wrong he was.  Even as his book was going to print, eBay was developing a mechanism for selling hundreds of thousands of lots, big and small, using a timed system.  The world’s largest garage sale turns out to be a candle sale, with a few technical modifications.

 The Diary of Samuel Pepys – a highly recommended website