In the early days, miners used candles, flaming torches and oil lanterns to light their way. As mines got deeper, this type of lighting presented enormous dangers due to the presence of methane gas which is potentially explosive in high concentrations when exposed to a naked flame. Underground explosions were common but the impetus to find a solution to the problem came from the Felling Pit Disaster of 1812, in which ninety-two men and boys were killed.
The principle of the flame safety lamp was presented by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1815. Although ‘Davy Lamp’ is the common term used by most people to describe the device, the design was based on the pioneering work of George Stephenson and Dr William Reid Clanny. However, Davy, an established figure within the Royal Society was awarded a £2,000 prize for the invention. It was only later in 1816 that Stephenson’s contribution was officially acknowledged by the Royal Society. In 1816, Clanny published a paper ‘Practical Observations on Safety Lamps’. He also made improvements to the design including the addition of the distinctive bonnet. The Davy lamp was adopted nationwide with the exception of the North East where George Stephenson’s design was more commonly used, the so called ‘Geordie Lamp’.
Davy appreciated the value of his lamp but refused to patent his design, turning down a fortune and stating – ‘My sole object was to serve the cause of humanity’. Early safety lamps were quite fragile: The gauze in the Davy lamp rusted, while the glass in Stephenson’s design was easily broken. Later, Robert Gray (who first wrote to Davy concerning the problem of methane gas), Dr Mathieu-Louis Mueseler (Belgium) and Jean Baptiste Marsaut (France) independently resolved these problems by using multiple gauze cylinders.
The modern Garforth lamp was developed by the Mines Research Establishment from a design described by Sir William Garforth in 1883 to provide safe lighting in coal-mines as well as providing an effective tool for the detection, observation and measurement of methane gas or ‘firedamp’. The device allows air samples to be taken from areas of the mine and blown into the lamp by means of an aspirator bulb. Changes in the colour of the flame reveal the composition of the gas. For example; a large area of blue flame observed above the test flame indicates the presence of methane gas.
During the London 2012 Games, the Olympic Torch was transported across the country by means of what was essentially a miner’s flame safety lamp. In November 2013, an unlit flame safety lamp accompanied Russian Cosmonauts on a spacewalk, ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.