Candle Auction

Parachain Auctions use a modern digital variant of traditional Candle Auctions. This arrticle gives a little background on the history and mechanics of candle auctions.

A Candle Auction, Auction by the Candle, Selling by the Candle or Pin and Candle Auction, is a variation of the typical English auction that became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. In a candle auction, the end of the auction was signalled by the expiration of a candle flame, which was designed so that no one could know exactly when the auction would end and bid at the last second. Sometimes other unpredictable processes, such as footrace, were used instead of the candle's expiry.


Candle auctions are a variant of open auctions where bidders bid incrementally higher and the highest bidder at the end of the auction is the winner. Over the years different versions of the Candle Auction have emerged.

Traditional Candle Auctions

During the Candle Aution, the auctioneer pushed a pin into the side of a buring candle. People could bid for an item until the candle burned down and the pin fell out. When this happened, the bidding stopped and the person with the high bid at that moment won the auction to buy the item.

Candle auctions were originally used in the 16th century to sell ships and got their name from the 'candle inch', which defined the open auction period. When the flame goes out and the candle goes out, the auction suddenly ends and the bid in force at that time wins.

Modern Candle Auctions

A modern version of a candle auction is used in some online auction systems to prevent snipers from following the auction. In these auctions, the computer randomly selects the end time of the auction to prevent snipers from trying to bid at the last second. Indeed, Fühlbrunn and Sadrieu show theoretically and experimentally that bidders submit serious bids in candlestick auctions from the beginning.

Digital Candle Auctions (Parachain Auctions)

When candle auctions are used online, they require a random number to determine the moment of termination.

Parachain slot auctions will differ slightly from regular candle auctions in that they do not use a random number to determine the duration of the opening phase. Instead, it has a known open phase and will retroactively determine (during normal closing) that it ended at some point in the past during the ending phase. Thus, bids will still be accepted during the open phase, but later bids have a higher probability of losing, as it may turn out that retroactively a certain point of closure precedes the time of bid submission.


The concept of Candle Auctions was already known in England by 1641, when it is mentioned in the records of the House of Lords.

John Milton

Candle Auctions quickly became popular, and in 1652 the seventeenth-century poet John Milton described "selling by the candle":

"The Council thinks it meet to propose the way of selling by inch of candle, as being the most probable means to procure the true value of the goods."
- John Milton - 1652

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys worked for the Admiralty, and was up to date on what was going on amongst the shipping merchants in London. Samuel Pepys's diary of his life in London records two occasions when the Admiralty sold surplus ships using candle auctions.

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)"
- Samuel Pepys - November 6, 1660

Samuel Pepys also reports a hint from a very successful bidder who noticed that just before the expiry date the candle wick always flashed slightly: seeing this, he called out his last - and winning - bid:

"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."
- Samuel Pepys - September 3, 1662

Lloyd's Coffee House

Lloyd's Coffee House was a significant meeting place in London in the 17th and 18th centuries. Although the candle auction went out of fashion in the 16th century, it was still not uncommon for ships to be sold at Lloyd's Coffee House in London in the early 19th century. For example, the Sarah Christiana, among other ships, was offered for sale at a candle auction in 1828.

Portrait of John Milton in National Portrait Gallery, London.
Portrait of John Milton in National Portrait Gallery, London.
Portrait of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1600–1679) in 1666.
Portrait of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1600–1679) in 1666.
19th-century drawing of Lloyd's Coffee House.
19th-century drawing of Lloyd's Coffee House.

Present day

A few candle auctions are still held today as a form of tradition.

  • In Chedsay, Somerset, a parcel of church land is sold at a candle auction once every 21 years.
  • In Tartworth, a 6 acre (24,000 m2) plot is auctioned off by candlelight once a year.
  • In Lee, Dorset, two plots of land, Alton Mead and Beer (or Beer) Mead, are auctioned off annually. And in Bourne, Lincolnshire, a 4,000m2 Whitebread Meadow is auctioned off as part of a race between two boys from the town.
  • In Berkshire village, candle auction is held every three years at Aldermaston Parish Hall, and sees people bidding to lease a local meadow while a candle containing a horse-nail burns.
 Candle Auction at Aldermaston Parish Hall in Berkshire village.
Candle Auction at Aldermaston Parish Hall in Berkshire village.


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This page was last changed on 2021-09-21.