November 2010

Historical Metallurgy

The miners' safety lamp

By Fathi Habashi, Laval University, Quebec City

Roman lamp Roman lamp

The Industrial Revolution began in the eighteenth century in the United Kingdom following a number of innovations in three major sectors — textiles, steam power and iron founding. In the case of the latter two, the steam engine went from being used to pump out mines to attaining widespread use in power machines in the 1780s, and coke replaced charcoal in the smelting of iron, which resulted in an increase in the production of pig iron for use in machinery and construction. A large quantity of fuel was needed to power a steam engine. Forests were shrinking at a quick pace; therefore, attention turned from wood to coal as a potential fuel source. The use of the newly invented safety lamp in the mines meant that coal mining was now relatively “safe.” What ensued was a shift from a wood-burning to a coal-burning economy.

The miner’s lamp played an important role during this period. Coal mining was dangerous, due to the presence of methane in many coal seams. Miners going underground with an oil lamp or torch ran the risk of igniting the methane and causing an explosion. However, a certain degree of safety was provided by the safety lamp, which was invented in 1816 by Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) and independently by George Stephenson (1781-1848). The lamp consisted of a flame surrounded by a cylinder of metallic gauze, which allowed oxygen to penetrate through and feed the flame. The heat of the flame was dissipated by the metal and as such, prevented explosive gases outside the lamp from igniting.

The lamp was immortalized by numerous artists. It was depicted in memorial statues and by at least two large monuments — one in the United Kingdom and the other in Germany. The British monument, constructed in 1998 by Jim Roberts, a 1992 graduate of Sunderland University, is located outside the Stadium of Light in the one-time coal mining district of Tyne & Wear in Sunderland. It serves as a reminder of the former Monkwearmouth Colliery, the site on which the stadium was built. The other monument was constructed between 1998 and 2007 in Moers, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, by Otto Piene, a graduate of the Munich Art Academy. The monument stands 30 metres high, is made of steel and glass, and is meant to recall the coal mining activity in the region. It was named “Geleucht,” which loosely translates to “once was shining.”

The safety lamp was also depicted on a number of postage stamps. For example, a Spanish stamp issued in 1995 shows a safety lamp with an underground mine in the background. It also refers to the Mining Museum in Asturias, an old mining district in north western Spain. Stamps honouring the coal mines of the Saar Territory in Germany1 include: one showing a canary still being used in the 1930s to warn miners of lethal doses of explosive methane gas; one showing a safety lamp with wagons loaded with coal; and one showing a miner holding a safety lamp in his hand. Safety lamps also appear on German, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian and Luxemburger stamps. Safety lamps also appear on the coat of arms of the Koumac Province of New Caledonia and the Petrosani mining district in Romania. The Romanian stamp shows the pick and hammer — the miners’ symbol — and a pneumatic drill. The miners’ lamp has also been introduced to the coat of arms of many mining towns, such as the mining town of Nučice, Czech Republic.

It was around 1910 that the battery-operated electric lamp was introduced, gradually replacing the Davy–Stephenson lamp. It was safer and its design provided better lighting. Safety cap with miner lamp

Suggested readings
Habashi, F. (1999). Mining and Civilization. An Illustrated History. Québec City: Métallurgie Extractive Québec. Distributed by Laval University Bookstore.
Habashi, F., Hendricker, D., & Gignac, C. (2010). Mining and Metallurgy on Postage Stamps. Québec City: Métallurgie Extractive Québec Distributed by Laval University Bookstore. 


1 Saar or Saar Territory (German: Saargebiet) lies between Germany and France, was created by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 after World War I with Saarbrucken as its capital, and has important coal mines and an intensive steel industry. It was administered by France, under League of Nations supervision pending a plebiscite to be held in 1935.  The plebiscite resulted in an overwhelming majority in favour of re-union with Germany. After World War II, the territory was placed under French occupation and detached from Germany. It was returned to Germany in 1957.

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