January 9th, 1816 – Safe Light at the End of the Tunnel

Today-In-History

Sir Humphry Davy, was a Cornish chemist and inventor. He is best remembered today for his discoveries of several alkali and alkaline earth metals, as well as contributions to the discoveries of the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. For many miners, however, Davy is remembered for his invention of his safety lamp, also known as the Davy lamp, that first got test on January 9th, 1816 in the mines at Hebburn Colliery.

Sir Humphry Davy

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet PRS MRIA FGS ( December 17th, 1778 – May 29th, 1829)

After his return to England in 1815, Davy experimented with lamps for use in coal mines. There had been many mining explosions caused by firedamp or methane often ignited by open flames of the lamps then used by miners. In particular the Felling mine disaster in 1812 near Newcastle caused great loss of life, and action was needed to improve underground lighting and especially the lamps used by miners. Davy conceived of using an iron gauze to enclose a lamp’s flame, and so prevent the methane burning inside the lamp from passing out to the general atmosphere.

Although the idea of the safety lamp had already been demonstrated by William Reid Clanny and by the then unknown (but later very famous) engineer George Stephenson, Davy’s use of wire gauze to prevent the spread of flame was used by many other inventors in their later designs. George Stephenson’s lamp was very popular in the north-east coalfields, and used the same principle of preventing the flame reaching the general atmosphere, but by different means. 

Davy_lamp

The Davy lamp

Unfortunately, although the new design of gauze lamp initially did seem to offer protection, it gave much less light, and quickly deteriorated in the wet conditions of most pits. Rusting of the gauze quickly made the lamp unsafe, and the number of deaths from firedamp explosions rose yet further.

There was some discussion as to whether Davy had discovered the principles behind his lamp without the help of the work of Smithson Tennant, but it was generally agreed that the work of both men had been independent. Davy refused to patent the lamp, and its invention led to his being awarded the Rumford medal in 1816.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

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