Tuesday, November 30, 2010  
   Volume 80 - Issue 48 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
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Quote of the Week
“If I compare the Crowsnest Pass to Fernie ... I don’t think there is sufficient opportunity.”
- Nichole Yanota  
- Local artist   
   

 

Looking Back - John Kinnear

Amongst my collection of mining artifacts is an old beat up Wolf Safety lamp my father handed off to me years ago. The Wolf was a flame safety lamp used as a gas tester and illuminator for many years in underground coal mines in Canada. It was eventually replaced with battery lamps and modern flame and electronic gas testers. Every time I look at it I wonder what it must have been like to work underground years ago by only the miniscule amount of light it emanates.
The road to modern, safe and effective mine lighting underground was a 5,000 year long treacherous one in which some ingenious and some deadly methods were employed.
Early records indicate the Romans and Greeks were some of the first to venture underground. Around 3,000 B.C. they used flaming bundles of twisted reeds soaked in fish oils and torches of pine and cedar soaked in animal or vegetable oil to find their way around. Although Greek scholars around 300 - 400 B.C. mention coal mining the earliest known record of it is found in the 11th century in Northern England. There, sputtering candles taken into shallow scrapings in coal outcrops provided some of the first harsh lessons in methane flare-ups and explosions as miners ventured further and further underground. One of the earliest records of an underground explosion can be found on an epitaph in Gateshead England which reads: "Richard Backas, Burn'd In a Pit October 14, 1621". Apparently this era in coal mining history is rife with stories of mutilations and deaths caused by explosions. Superstitious miners felt the explosions were a result of the "devil" retaliating because his underground domain was being plundered!
Some lighting methods utilized back then included reflectors of curved polished metal used to reflect sunlight into the mine. I guess there was no work on cloudy days back then! Even the feeble phosphorescent glow from decaying fish was employed as an illuminator. Taking direction by "following your nose" took on a new meaning in these workings. Glass jars filled with "fire-flies" provided a less offensive but probably equally ineffective source of light.
In the 17th century various attempts were made to dissipate and detect methane in mine workings. During James ll of England's reign certain mines were tested by a rather cruel process of lowering a dog down the shaft. A frightened howl would mean firedamp (methane). A mine's fire boss became known as the "doggy”, a nickname still occasionally heard around Staffordshire.
Methane, being lighter than air, collects in roof cavities and another dangerous practice back then was to keep lamps burning in those cavities. Another practice of "burning out" was first tried in the mid 17th century where the hero of the moment was clad in protective leather or water soaked sacking. Crawling as low to the ground as possible he raised a lighted candle at the end of a long rod to ignite any gas and with any luck the resultant explosion would pass over his head. Immediately after the explosion he would attempt to reach high ground in order to escape the poisonous gases (afterdamp) left after the blast. If this poor bugger was lucky enough to survive the first blast he would proceed to the next hazard area and repeat the process. Now that's what I call a gutsy fire boss!
As an aside my father told me there was a sort of modern day version of this practice carried out in Drumheller mines. Mines in the "Drum" were relatively gas free and early miners wore carbide lamps (open flame). There, it was a sort of rite of passage back then for new hires to have the living hell scared out of them by another miner as they entered the mine for the first time. That miner would merely reach up to a depression in the roof where small amounts of methane gas had collected and touch it off with his cigarette. The resultant brief blue flash usually resulted in the new hire doing a "road runner" exit from the mine while the rest of the miners roared with laughter.
As mines became larger particularly during the Industrial Revolution the need for lighting increased and practical lamps of the day were of convenient shapes for handling such as sea shells and dish shaped stones and later clay or malleable metals.

 
The tin miners in Cornwall used moist clay to fix candles to their hard hats and when they and other Europeans immigrated to America they brought their many ingenious adaptations with them. They were used of course only in gas free coal mines and rock mines in America.
Work n Play
Old Wolf Safety Lamp
John Kinnear Photo
Oil wick lamps were common and useful for many centuries in mines, utilizing animal fat and eventually vegetable oils. Their original wicks were animal hair which was ultimately replaced by linen or cotton. Many of these "tunnel lamps" and "frog lamps" have survived in collections in Germany and other parts of Europe.
In 1853 a Polish chemist named Lukasiewicz invented the kerosene lamp which became widely used in western European mines, the kerosene later replaced with paraffin. In 1862 a German chemist named Fredrich Wohler produced calcium carbide and discovered that by adding water acetylene gas was given off which burned steadily with a bright flame. Thirty years later a Canadian inventor, Thomas Willson, found a cheap commercial way to produce calcium carbide and sold his patent to Union Carbide Company of the U.S. The carbide lamp industry grew rapidly and the lamp was popular, being 10 times brighter than an oil lamp, but being an open flame there was still a danger of explosion in certain mines.
Around 1750 an English mining engineer named Carlisle Spedding invented what was felt to be a "safe working light" for gassy mines. Dubbed the "Spedding Mill" it was a piece of flint held against a rotating steel disc. It was generally operated by a young child cranking out a cascade of bright sparks from the disc. The results were poor but supposedly safe light. The thought of some child cranking out showers of sparks in a gassy mine makes the hair stand up on my neck! The Spedding Mill was also a means of detecting firedamp as the gas caused the sparks to turn deep red! Used for 70 years it was not infallible and many explosions were attributed to it including one that ironically killed Carlisle Spedding himself in 1755.
As the carnage resulting from disasters at collieries continued inventors and scientists were pressed to come up with a safe light. Enter then Sir Humphry Davy, a noted scientist who, once he had studied the problem was optimistic he could solve it. In his experiments he discovered that the flame of burning gases would not pass through apertures of a certain diameter. Experimenting with fine wire gauze he demonstrated that a closed top cylinder placed around a wick would successfully confine and cool the flame below the ignition temperature of methane.
An engineer named John Buddle had the dubious honour of proving the lamp's effectiveness in a gassy atmosphere underground. The test was successful much to Buddles relief whereupon he uttered the classic statement: "At last the monster has been subdued".
The Davy lamp was copied and modified by many like Wolf of Germany and Clanny of England. Davy was urged to patent the working principle but he never did insisting that: "I never thought of such a thing, my sole object was to serve the cause of humanity and if I succeeded, I am amply rewarded in the gratifying reflection of having done so."
Well, Sir Davy, you did indeed succeed in serving the cause of humanity and until Thomas Edison's lightweight alkaline battery came along you made the treacherous underground world of the coal miner a lot safer place.
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