miners lamps history
The depth, the dark, and the dangers inherent in mining created a uniquely
dangerous working environment for the miner. Miners faced death from
collapsing mines, oxygen deprivation, and haulage accidents, with the
specter of fatal lung disease remaining even after the miner had left the
mines. But the most instantaneous and catastrophic loss of life was caused
by explosions due to miner's lamps igniting methane gas.
A miner's light was essential to their labor. Without light there was no sight,
no work, and no wages. But this essential light was also lethal. Open flames
could ignite the inflammable gas especially prevalent in coal mines and
mining explosions with hundreds of casualties was a common occurrence in
the late 19th and early 20th century. Miners often carried open flames into
the mines in the form of candles and hanging lamps, and later wore the open
flames of carbide lamps and oil-wick lamps on their caps and helmets.
Saucer-type Open Grease Lamps
The first type of mine light, the open saucer-type grease lamp, was popular
in the 1700's and was often decorated with ornamental figures such as
roosters. These figures acted as good luck charms for the miner.
Before 1850, miners would use candles or small lamps that were hung from
crevices or hammered into timbers near their work. From 1850 until around
1915, miner's headgear generally consisted of cloth or canvas hats with
leather brims and metal lamp brackets on the forehead that allowed them to
hang a source of light on the front of their cap. Caps served the ancillary use
of protecting the miner's eyes from smoke or soot and their head from small
bumps, but its main purpose was as a mount for their lamps.
Later, candles made of hard tallow became a popular source of light within
the mines. The candle-holder was adopted for use in the mines as well. It
consisted of a 3/8-inch iron rod twisted into a looped handle at one end and
a sharpened point at the other. Often there was a hook on the holder and
when the point could not be driven into a suitable support, the holder could
be hung from any overhang or protrusion in the mine.
Oil Wick Lamps
Around 1850, the oil-wick cap lamp was invented in Scotland. Oil-wick cap
lamps were shaped like small kettles-a small font that contained oil fueled a
wick that was stuffed into the spout. The oil-wick cap lamp issued a bare
flame, giving off enough light for miners to see what was in front of their
face, but not much further. The oil-fueled flame was exceedingly smoky,
and could easily ignite flammable gasses (mainly methane) found in coal
mines. These lamps were worn on soft caps that offered little in the way of
protection and were mainly worn for the convenience of having a light
source in front of the miner's face.
As mining progressed, oil wick lamps became increasingly popular because
they were cheaper to burn than tallow candles and easier to balance and
carry in the mines. Manufactured between 1860 and 1920, these lamps
differed in size and shape but operated on the same basic principle.
A small conical font 1½ to 2½ inches tall and about 1-inch in diameter held
the fuel and a hinged snap cap sealed the top. The long neck or spout
extended up and outward from one side on the font. Opposite the spout, a
wire hook was fastened to the font to fit on a miner's leather or cloth cap. It
looked like a small teapot with a brush hanging out the spout. The wick
brought the fuel from the font to the tip.
Davy lamp(Carriage Lamps)
The man who made the real breakthrough in this area was Sir Humphry
Davy when he invented what is known as the Davy Lamp or a
gauze-enclosed lamp. Although gauze alone could not guarantee that the
flame would not come into contact with gases outside the screen, Sir Davy
reasoned that a metal mesh would cool down the flame before it came into
contact with any fire damp. These gases explode at certain temperatures but
will extinguish a flame that is cooler.
To prevent miners from opening their safety lamp underground,
considerable attention was paid to locks. Most safety lamps were equipped
with a padlock, keyed setscrews, melted soft-metal locking inserts or
magnetic spring-loaded latches.
Before the 19th century, this forced miners to use open flames that had the
potential to ignite the flammable gasses inside mines, causing lethal
explosions. The flammable gas (firedamp) consisted mainly of methane and
was most often found in coal mines. A need was seen to provide a safe light
for miners to use in gaseous mines, and several inventors set upon the task
independently. The three main progenitors of early safety lamps were Dr.
William Reid Clanny, Sir Humphry Davy, and George Stephenson.
The first to set upon the idea of a safety lamp was Dr. William Clanny. As a
physician in Sunderland, England, Clanny routinely attended to patients
injured in mining explosions. In 1813 Clanny revealed his first design for a
lamp in a paper to the Royal Philosophical Society. Clanny enclosed the
flame in glass with layers of water above and below the flame to "seal in the
fire." A bellows supplied oxygen through a tube into the chamber to keep
the flame alight. The bellows made this lamp impractical for daily use, and
the flame was extinguished when tested in a mixture of inflammable gas.
George Stephenson was an English engineer who also began to try to invent
a safe lamp in 1815. Through trial and error he came upon a design that
worked. He encased the lamp in a glass cylinder, which was capped with a
metallic cover with tiny holes. This was covered with a metal bonnet to
further remove the flame from the dangers of the flammable gas.
The Englishman Sir Humphry Davy was already a scientist and inventor of
national renown when he seized upon the idea of a safety lamp in 1815.
Davy had performed numerous scientific experiments on all natures of
gasses, and this experience proved useful in battling the flammable firedamp
found in gaseous mines. Davy’s invention was to surround the flame with a
metallic mesh screen. Air could pass through the screen to fuel the flame,
but if the holes in the screen were small enough, the mesh would cool the
flame to such an extent that it could not ignite the gas surrounding the lamp.
This design allowed the Davy lamp to serve as a test for the presences of
certain gasses. If firedamp was present, the flame would burn with a blue
“cap.” The length of the cap would determine how much gas was present.
Some lamps in the collection are these so called “test lamps” with marks in
the lamp's glass used to measure the flame’s cap. While flammable gasses
were the most prominent threat in mines, asphyxiant gasses also presented a
danger. Davy’s safety lamp helped with this issue as well, as miners could
use Davy’s lamp to check for harmful concentrations of carbon dioxide,
which would extinguish the flame at a non-lethal concentration, alerting the
miner’s to unsafe working conditions.
Although safety lamps addressed the issue of mining explosions, they did
not become as numerous as other mining lights for a variety of reasons.
Many miners objected to using safety lamps because they were cumbersome,
could not be worn on the cap, and gave a poor light, which all served to
reduce a miner’s efficiency. Since most miners were paid by the pound, a
reduction in efficiency amounted to a reduction in pay, and so the risk of an
explosion was a chance miners were willing to take. Additionally, many
miners objected to the false confidence instilled in many who used a safety
lamp, and claimed that safety lamps obscured the real issue of unsafe
working conditions and would hinder the development of improved
ventilation needed in mines. Safety lamps had one unique advantage—they
could safely burn off methane in mines which kept them in use by mine
bosses even after the invention of battery-powered lamps.
Safety lamps were manufactured by a variety of companies from around
1815 until the 1930s, and incorporated elements of their design from Clanny,
Stephenson, and Davy. Most of the safety lamps in the collection of the
Division of Work and Industry include all three inventor’s contributions
towards a safety lamp—a glass enclosure around the flame for more
effective lighting, mesh uppers to cool the flame, and metal bonnet to better
protect the flame from being extinguished by gusts or drafts in mines.
Carbide lamps are powered by the reaction of calcium carbide (CaC2) with
water (H2O). This reaction produces acetylene gas (C2H2) which burns a
clean, white flame. Acetylene gas was originally discovered by Edmund
Davy in 1836, but commercial production of calcium carbide only became
feasible due to the efforts of Thomas Wilson in 1894. Frederick Baldwin is
credited with developing the first carbide mining lamp, holding U.S. Patent
number 656,874 for an Acetylene Gas Lamp that was granted August 28,
1900. Commercial production of carbide mining lamps began soon after,
and the collection in the Division of Work and Industry reflects a variety of
carbide lamp designers and manufacturers including Baldwin, Auto-Lite,
Guy’s Dropper, Shanklin, Dewar, and Wolf. Carbide lamps came in
different sizes for different uses, smaller lamps were cap lamps, larger lamps
were hand lamps or hanging lamps.
The general design of carbide lamps was consistent across designers and
manufacturers, with the differences often being improvements to the
water-drip mechanism or gas feed. The similarity of lamps was an issue for
Frederick Baldwin, who sued many of his competitors for patent
infringement. The design of the carbide lamp consists of two chambers—an
upper chamber holding water and a lower chamber holding the calcium
carbide. Acetylene gas is produced when water from the lamp's upper level
encounters the calcium carbide stored in the base via a dripping mechanism.
The amount of water flowing into the calcium carbide container can be
controlled, with more water producing more gas and a bigger flame when
the lamp is lit. The gas is funneled to the burner, where it is lit by a match or
a built-in striker. Once the flame is lit, a reflector allows the miner to control
the direction of the light.
The carbide lamp consisted of several improvements to both the oil-wick
lamp and candle as a means for lighting in non-gaseous mines. The lamp
produced no carbon monoxide, consumed less oxygen, gave a brighter 4-6
candlepower light, and had a higher light quality than the candles or
oil-wick lamps it replaced. The carbide lamp had its problems as well.
Average runtime in carbide cap lamps was only about four hours,
necessitating a carbide refill mid-shift, which could leave the miner in
darkness. The burner tip was also prone to clogging, and concussive blasts
or winds inside the mine could extinguish the light as well.
The popularity of carbide mining lamps was short–lived, as electric battery
powered lamps came into favor around 1918 due to their superior light,
safety, and runtime, and had almost completely replaced carbide lamps by
In 1892, while working with lime, coal tar and a carbon mixture, Major
James T. Morehead and Thomas L. Willson developed a brownish-grey
substance that gave off a pungent smelling gas when mixed with water. This
gas burned with a bright yellow-white flame and they called it acetylene.
Within eight years the first carbide lamp was offered to the public.
Carbide Cap Lamps
The first carbide cap lamps weighed approximately four ounces and were
four inches high and 1 ½ inches in diameter. The lamp consisted of two
compartments that screwed together. The upper part contained water whose
flow into the lower chamber containing the carbide, was controlled by a drip
valve. A three-inch reflector directed a light of ten-foot candle power and
was a great improvement over the tallow candle.
The early years of the 20th century were some of the deadliest years in the
recorded history of mining in the United States as the demands of an
industrializing society created increased demands for coal. In 1909 20 coal
mine disasters were recorded, the most on record. In 1910, 25 mine disasters
(metal/nonmetal and coal) were recorded. The Monongah Coal mine in
West Virginia was the site of the largest coal mine disaster in U.S. history in
1907 with 362 deaths recorded. This disaster prompted Congress to create
the U.S. Bureau of Mines as an attempt to improve working conditions
across the country.
It was these mounting disasters that prompted mine engineer John T. Ryan
Sr. and George H. Deike to found the Mine Safety Appliances Company
(MSA) in 1914. They enlisted Thomas Edison to help them create a
dependable and safe electric cap lamp. Electricity had been available in
homes for years, but the application of electric lighting in mines was a
harder proposition due to the extensive wiring costs.
The solution to this problem was a rechargeable battery pack designed by
Edison. The Edison Cap Lamp consisted of a battery encased in a
self-locking steel case worn on the miner’s belt. A flexible cord traveled to
the cap lamp, and its entrance into the battery was protected by a flexible
steel cover. The battery could power a six-candlepower lamp for 12 hours
and was recharged at the end of a miner’s shift. Safety measures in the bulb
included an immediate disconnect of the electrical contacts if the bulb was
broken that cooled the tungsten filament to such a degree that it would not
ignite any flammable gasses in the air.
The MSA Company later manufactured helmets optimized for the Edison
Cap Lamp featuring a mount in the front for the lamp and a guide in the
back for the cable, allowing the miner to move around freely without any
encumbrance from the wire running from the battery to the bulb. Bullard
“Hard Boiled” mining helmets also included a leather mount that could
accommodate either a carbide lamp or an electric lamp, with a cord guide on
the hat’s reverse. An example of this cap lamp can be seen to the left. Before
safety regulations required helmets, miners wore electric lamps on both their
canvas caps and hard helmets.
A portable lamp is composed of two parts, the battery which furnishes the
current, and the bulb. The bulb was perfected quickly but the battery was
troublesome. In fact, none of the early experimental lamps proved
successful, as the bulb required too heavy a battery. Also, leakage of acid
was a serious problem. Today, the cap lamp uses a non-spillable battery and
a parabolic reflector equipped with safety features that hooks onto the
miner's cap. Electric lamps came on market around the year1902 and have a
lifespan of approximately five years.
The dawn of the electric lamp allowed the miner to work in any position
without restraint, as it did not interfere with the free motion of the body.
Lamphouses at the various collieries had facilities for charging, cleaning,
and filling both electric lamps and oil safety lamps.
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