Wednesday 17 December 2014

The Invention of the Davy Lamp

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet (Penzance, Cornwall, England, 17th December 1778 – Geneva, Switzerland, 29th May 1829)

Sir Humphry Davy by Thomas Phillips
Sir Humphry Davy by Thomas Phillips

Coal mining goes back many generations in my family and is a heritage I am extremely proud of. I grew up in Nottinghamshire and the headstocks of a pit were a common feature on the landscape, though of course those days are long since gone. Since today marks the anniversary of the birth of chemist and inventor, Sir Humphry Davy, I thought I would offer a closer look at the Davy lamp, an iconic bit of Georgian engineering and one that is familiar to anyone who knows mining history!

Like all of England, Davy was horrified by the severity and impact of mining explosions caused by the fatal cocktail of open flame and the methane gas prevalent in the mines. Davy hit upon the idea that a shielded lamp would be the ideal answer, as it would contain the flame and massive reduce the risk of explosions. To this end, he developed an iron gauze that would shield the lamp, dramatically cutting the risk of disaster. 

Davy Lamp

When news spread of the new invention, Davy's lamp swiftly became the subject of no small amount of controversy as other inventors claimed that they had reached the solution of shielding the flame ahead of the Cornish inventor. Other safety lamps were certainly  in use prior to the 1816 trial of the Davy lamp and though in theory the invention was sound, in practice it was far from ideal. Even minor damage to the lamp could result in its effectiveness being drastically reduced yet miners, who had to buy their own safety lamps, were happy to put their trust in it, no doubt hoping that the odds were at least better than with flame alone!


GeoWebGuru said...

Less famous, a young George Stephenson invented the 'Geordie Lamp' independently. Using the same principle it used tubes instead of gauze and didn't have the glass. It was more robust but gave out less light. Davy couldn't believe a (then unknown) working class Geordie could have invented such a thing without stealing and launched a vicious attack. Even his friends distanced themselves from these attacks.

Catherine Curzon said...

That brings back memories. When I was at primary school in 1982-ish we watched a TV programme that dramatised the development of the two lamp. We also sang a song about Stephenson, but the only line I can recall now is "Geordie Stephenson, a man before his time". It may have been penned by our teacher, Mrs Millward...