Coal miner’s lamps in good condition are widely sought after by enthusiastic collectors, the more unusual the better. Nevertheless, they are symbols of a very dangerous occupation.
A brief history of coal mining
Coal mining dates back thousands of years. Romans in Britain must have used coal, since cinders have been found in archeological digs. In particular, coal became very important in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was used to power steam train engines and heat buildings. Furthermore it was used to generate electricity. Since the mid-twentieth century its place has mostly been taken by petroleum.
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Children down the mines
Children as young as five as well as women were sent down the mines. The children were small enough to reach difficult coal faces. Small ponies were also used for dragging trolleys to the pulleys which brought the coal to the surface. They were often injured by breaking a leg or had back problems. However it is not true that they were blind. Large numbers of mules were used in the US.
The coal miner’s working life was full of risks. Lift expectancy was short with pulmonary infections and lung cancer predominating. Open flames such as candles were often the cause of gas explosions. Indeed, they were the only source of light until the invention of the miner’s lamp. Moreover, canaries in cages were taken into the mines as a sort of early warning system. If they died, it meant there was dangerous gas in the atmosphere.
At first miner’s lamps had to be provided by the miners themselves. Just as previously they had brought their own candles, considered as giving better illumination. Miner’s lamps were invented around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Thus somewhat alleviating the dangers from open flames setting off gas explosions.
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The Clanny Lamp
William Clanny, an Irish doctor, invented the Clanny Lamp in 1813. This had a small glass aperture covered with fine gauze which prevented the flame from passing through.
The Flame Safety Lamp
George Stephenson shortly thereafter invented another flame safety lamp. This allowed air to enter via small holes through which a flame could not pass. Notwithstanding this invention, in 1815 Sir Humphrey Davy announced a very similar lamp, known as the Flame Safety Davy Lamp. Davy was accused of stealing Stephenson’s invention. In fact the British House of Commons ruled that Stephenson had an equal claim for inventing such a lamp. He was awarded £1000 compensation.
The oil-wick lamp
In the mid nineteenth century another miner’s lamp was introduced in some mines. Its body was filled with oil and a wick pushed in attached to a spout. However, it had many disadvantages such as smell, smoke and the fear that the flame could ignite methane.
The carbide lamp
In 1892 Canadian inventor Thomas Willson discovered an economic way of creating calcium carbide. This was placed in the lower chamber of the miner’s lamp. By allowing water to drip slowly into the chamber the acetylene gas could be controlled. However these lamps were implicated in a gas explosion in Illinois and its use in the US gradually declined.
In the meantime in the US, Britain and Germany, battery-powered cap lamps were being developed, to be worn on hard hats or caps. A competition was held, won by the OldhamType C electric safety lamp. First introduced in 1930, these electric lamps were a vast improvement in safety terms. In the 1990s the first cordless miner’s lamp was invented. These are the most common cap lamps in use in the world today.
In spite of all these improvements there have been some major mining disasters around the world in recent years. Fires, floods and explosions occurred in mines in India and the US. In China mining accidents are said to claim about five thousand lives each year.
Only a few particular miner’s lamps have been discussed here, whereas there are very many others. For this reason collectors are always on the lookout for rarities. Some lamps in poor condition can cost as little as 50 dollars, whereas a particularly rare lamp in good condition can be expected to reach a price of several hundred dollars.
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