Mining: Early Lighting


From candle holders to carbide lamps, this exhibit features early lighting methods used by miners. These artifacts sample the collection of the Hutchings Museum's mining display, donated by Ren Willie.

Candle Holder with Candle by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute


Candles were a common lighting method in mines for many years. The candle holder would be driven into the rock wall and would illuminate the area, although it gave off a small amount of light. The candle was rather inefficient as it melted quite quickly. 

Folding Candle Lantern (Circa 1908) by StonebridgeHutchings Museum Institute

Candles would be placed inside this collapsible lantern. The windows are made of mica instead of glass, because mica is more heat resistant. These lanterns were originally used in World War I.

Carbide Hand Lamp Without Reflector by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

Oil wick hand lamp

Following the candle, oil wick hanging lamps were originally created in Wales and eventually adopted and reproduced in the United States. Hand lamps were mainly hung in mines and not on miners hats. While candles burn cleaner, oil wick lamps produced a tremendous amount of smoke that covered miner's faces in soot. 

Oil Wick Cap Lamp (Circa 1860) by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

Oil wick cap lamps

Miners would have hung cap lamps on their hats as they worked in the mines. They are oil wick lamps which mean they produce a smoky flame, but they burn brighter and longer than candles would. If a higher quality fuel was used, the flame would produce less smoke.

Oil Wick Cap Lamp (Circa 1860) by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

Oil wick lamps required a fuel mixture of fat and oil. As miners were always quite poor, they would use the cheapest fuel they could buy. Cheap fuel produced a smoky flame which caused the miners faces and clothes with soot. 

Oil Wick Cap Lamp (Long Spout) (Circa 1860) by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

A large version of the oil wick cap lamp that would have been placed on the ground beside the miner (as opposed to hanging on a hat) and produced a larger flame. The rust that covers this lamp was due to the presence of water in humid mines.

Golden Carbide Lamp Side View (Circa 1906) by The Baldwin LampHutchings Museum Institute

Carbide lamps

Improvements on candles and oil wick lamps produced carbide lamps. Carbide lamps provided light through a chemical reaction between calcium carbide and water. Carbide lamps consist of two reservoirs--a water reservoir on top and a carbide reservoir on bottom.

Carbide Lamp Side View (Patented 1922) by VictorHutchings Museum Institute

The upper water reservoir drips into the carbide reservoir and initiates a reaction between the calcium carbide and water. This reaction creates acetylene gas. The gas is then lit by a match or striker. On this lamp, the striker is on the right side of the reflector.

Wide Reflecting Carbide Lamp by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

Miners could change the direction and size of their light through circular reflectors attached to the lamp. The large reflector on this lamp is to protect the flame from dripping water coming from the rock and from water used for drilling.

Golden Carbide Lamp (Patented 1925) by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

One fill up on the carbide lamp would last around four hours, going out half way through a miners shift. They would fill up again with extra carbide reservoirs they kept on them. Hopefully, fellow miners would still have light so they could see while they switched reservoirs. The red piece of rubber on the bottom of this lamp is called a  "bumper grip," which protects the miner from the hot lamp.

Threaded Carbide Lamp Bottom by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

This is a container of extra carbide that miners would have carried with them for refilling their lamp. 

Carbide Container by JustriteHutchings Museum Institute

Another way miners could keep carbide on them was in flasks like this. This is a hip flask that could be placed on the belt. They would pour the carbide kept in this container into their lamps.

Prince Albert Tobacco Case by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco CompanyHutchings Museum Institute

Another way miners would store carbide was in water proof tobacco containers like the one shown. Tobacco needed to be kept moist, so their containers are sealed tightly. These containers could easily slip into shirt pockets, so they were preferable for the miner.

Modern Carbide Container (Circa 1980) by Union Carbide CorporationHutchings Museum Institute

Miners would buy calcium carbide in containers like this and transfer it into smaller containers that they would take into the mine and load into their lamps so they reaction could take place. The products of the reaction between water and calcium carbide include acetylene gas (manifested in the flame and light), calcium hydroxide (residue), and heat.

Water Flask by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

As carbide lamps require water, miners would carry water flasks filled with pure water that they would put into their lamps and initiate a chemical reaction. 

Carbide Hand Lamp by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

Carbide hand lamps

Carbide lamps also came in hand-held versions. These lamps are quite a bit larger than the carbide lamp that would be placed on a hat. They could be held or hung in the mine.

Carbide Hand Lamp Without Reflector (Threaded) by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

This is a different version of the carbide hand lamp. It is missing the circular reflector that reflects the light forwards. 

Carbide Bike Lamp (Circa 1980)Hutchings Museum Institute

Bicycle lamp

Still powered by calcium carbide, this carbide lamp would have been mounted on bicycles and used by night-watchmen. 

Golden Safety Lamp by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

Safety lamp

The safety lamp was invented to provide a safer way to burn a flame in gaseous mines. An open flame could have easily caused an explosion when methane gas levels got too high. A safety lamp enclosed the flame in glass. Above the glass cylinder, metal mesh helped to cool the flame and a metal bonnet protected the flame from flammable gas.

Silver Safety Lamp (Circa 1913) by Wolf Safety Lamp Co.Hutchings Museum Institute

The seal on the bottom of this lamp means it was an official safety lamp. It was approved by the Wolf Safety Lamp Company of America. In addition to providing light, safety lamps were helpful resources in determining how much methane was in the mine. If the top of the flame turned blue, miners knew they had to leave the mine immediately due to methane. If the flame was extinguished, miners knew there was an un-safe amount of carbon dioxide in the mine. 

Model Safety Lamp by Archive MaterialHutchings Museum Institute

Safety lamps never became the most popular form of lighting in mines. They were large and clunky, had to be carried and could not be hung on hats. They did not give adequate light so many miners found them to be inefficient. This is a model safety lamp, made from a bullet casing. It would never be used to give a light, but could be hung on a keychain. 

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