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This content is taken from the Lancaster University & Royal Institution's online course, Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp . Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds So now, we’ll turn our attention to the invention for which Davy is most famous, his miners’ safety lamp. I’ve been very careful when describing the lamp as Davy’s, because there were other lamps invented at this time. So we’ll consider these other lamps and the differences between those and the one that Davy invented. The question we’ll be asking you to think about is, who really did invent the miners’ safety lamp? Coal mines were incredibly important to Britain in the 19th century but working in the mines was very dangerous. Miners needed to be able to take the candles down the mines so that they could see what they were doing but this was extremely risky.

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 seconds Firedamp, largely made up of highly flammable methane gas, could ignite in the candle’s flame and the resulting explosion was often devastating. On the 25th May 1812 one of the worst mining disasters occurred in Felling Colliery, now in Gateshead in the north-east of England. 92 men and boys were killed in a series of explosions. The disaster was such that the bodies of these victims were left underground for months, until it was safe to go down to retrieve them. Felling Colliery was in the Reverend John Hodgson’s parish. Hodgson published a graphic account of the explosion, which made coal owners realise that something needed to be done. They decided to write to Humphry Davy to ask for his advice.

Skip to 1 minute and 30 seconds Davy responded with characteristic optimism and confidence. In reply to the request on 3rd of August 1815, he writes– “It will give me very great satisfaction if my chemical knowledge can be of any use in an inquiry so interesting to humanity.” From the outset, Davy was careful to represent his contribution to the problem as a scientific one that could be of practical application. Davy went to Newcastle to visit some mines in late August. At this time, he was lent overnight a bellows lamp that had been invented by a Dr William Reid Clanny. This was generally thought to be of not much practical use in a mine, because it would take two people to operate it.

Skip to 2 minutes and 12 seconds During the same period, George Stephenson had also developed a lamp to be used in mines. Unlike Davy, Stephenson had developed his lamp through working in a mine himself. He was first engine man in a pit before working his way up to being the engine-wright at Killingworth Colliery. Stephenson had tested his first lamp in Killingworth on 21st October 1815, and subsequently developed several versions. After his trip to Newcastle, Davy returned to London and began to work on his own lamp in the laboratory at the Royal institution. He hit upon the idea of using the wire gauze in December 1815.

Skip to 2 minutes and 47 seconds The use of the gauze in the lamp allows light to shine, but does not allow the flame to pass through, thus preventing explosions. And this was Davy’s unique contribution to the miners’ safety lamp. Before the idea of wire gauze, Davy had already been accused of stealing Clanny’s bellows lamp. Davy’s, Stephenson’s, and Clanny’s lamps were all made and used. Stephenson’s lamp became known as “the Geordie” and was in wide use in Sunderland and other areas. But arguably, among the three, Davy’s lamp is the best known. We’ll be discussing why that is, looking more carefully at the differences between them, and the ensuing controversy over who first invented the miners’ safety lamp.

Introducing the Davy Lamp

Watch this video, in which Professor Sharon Ruston introduces the topic of this week.

She explains briefly why a miners’ safety lamp was needed, what the main feature of Davy’s lamp was, and how it worked. She also compares Davy’s lamp to those made by William Reid Clanny and George Stephenson.

After watching this video post your thoughts, reflecting on the conditions endured by miners in the early nineteenth century.

If you have memories of mining, you could also share them by posting a comment.

  • What are your memories of mining?

  • What were conditions like in mines?

Many thanks to Dr Andrew Lacey for sourcing the images for this video.

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This video is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University