The humble miner’s safety lamp is, arguably, one of the most important inventions of the 1800s. The industrial revolution saw coal overtake wood as the most important fuel source for new industries and cities, with an ever increasing demand driving production and placing pressure on safe and efficient extraction. A lamp that could light the way, without causing a disastrous explosion, was as essential a piece of a miner’s kit as a pick-axe.
As the industrial revolution began to gather pace in the early 1800s, the demand for coal to fuel steam-powered machines, trains, ships and, later, the blast furnaces of the iron and steel industry, grew at a rapid rate. Coal mines opened across Britain – particularly in South Wales, Scotland and Central and Northern England.
Mining was exhausting, dirty and, above all, dangerous work. One of the biggest hazards was firedamp – the name given to the collection of explosive gases that lay in between the layers of coal. In the early 1800s, miners used candles to light their way. Unsurprisingly, explosions were all too common, as the gases were released and ignited by the naked flames. One of the worst of these mining disasters occurred near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in May 1812, killing 92 miners. Something needed to be done. In 1815, two inventors, George Stephenson and Humphry Davy each came forward with individual ideas and designs for a so-called ‘safety lamp’.
Stephenson’s oil lamp drew air into a tall, glass ‘chimney’. When firedamp entered the chimney the oxygen was diluted and the flame was extinguished. Any gases leaving the chimney had a very low oxygen concentration, which prevented the enclosed flame escaping into the atmosphere. Davy’s design worked in a similar way, but had a fine brass gauze meshed cylinder enclosing the flame. This gave less light than Stephenson’s glass tube, but was more robust. While neither design was perfect, both were a vast improvement on the naked flame.
Stephenson later adopted Davy’s gauze as he revised and improved his own design. This would become the ‘Geordie Lamp’ which was used in mines in the North East of England for much of the 1800s. The safety lamp continued to evolve until the electric cap lamp began to take over in the 1900s.
Did you know..?
In the 1900s, canaries were taken down mines to warn miners of the presence of poisonous gases, particularly carbon monoxide or methane. When the birds showed signs of distress or died, the miners knew it was time to put on breathing apparatus.
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