By Allister Townson-Muse
With mining being the lifeblood of Nevada, it’s no surprise that the White Pine County Museum has an impressive collection of miner’s lamps on display. Located in the back room of the museum, are shelves filled with Carbide lamps. Although the museums lamps were used for mining, that wasn’t their original purpose. The first carbide lamp were originally designed to be used as lighting for lighthouse beacons, carriage headlights and ship lamps. With the start of the new century, the lamps usage spread to lighting homes that had not yet been connected to electricity and later were used as bicycle, automobile, train and mining lamps.
Prior to the creation of the carbide lamp, underground miners had to attach a candle to their work cap, or use a “Sticking Tommy” candle holder to illuminate their work area. The miners would have to find a crack in the tunnel wall in which to wedge the candle holder. For numerous reasons, this was not conducive to a productive work day.
In 1892, inventor Thomas “Carbide” Wilson had been experimenting with lime, coke and coal tar in an effort to produce metallic calcium. He unknowingly created calcium carbide, which when combined with water would create acetylene gas. Recognizing the commercial possibilities, the Union Carbide Company eventually purchased the chemical patent from Wilson in 1895 and went into full carbide producing mode. “Carbide” Wilson was touted as “The Man Who Turned Water into Light”.
The first carbide lamp developed in the United States was by Fredrick Baldwin and patented in August of 1900. For the next two decades, there were numerous patents awarded for modified versions of the carbide lamp. Regardless of the variations, the lamp was very simplistic in its design.
The lamps can be made from galvanized steel, cast aluminum or brass and consists of two chambers that screw together. The top chamber is the water reservoir, while the bottom stores the carbide pebbles. A valve stem slowly drips water onto the carbide at amounts regulated by the adjustment lever on top of the canister. When the water mixes with the carbide, it causes a chemical reaction, producing acetylene gas. The gas then passes through a felt strainer, which helps keep contaminates out of the ceramic gas jet tip. The jet is centered in the middle of a 4 inch light reflector disk. Located next to the jet is a flint wheel and when the wheel is spun, it creates a spark igniting the acetylene gas, causing a flame that can burn at 12-18 candlepower. As more water is added, more gas is produced which means a brighter flame. The flame didn’t create much heat, but surprisingly produced a fair amount of light for almost 4 hours.
During the early mining days, clips ware added which allowed the miners to attach the lamps to their work hat. With the water and carbide added, the lamp typically weighed just under 5 ounces. Work hats of the day, where not made for head protection, instead, they were designed to keep water off the face and hold the carbide lamps. These hats were made from leather or canvas. Advertisements from the early 1900s listed many accessories that could be purchased to use with the lamps such as cans or flasks, wire tip cleaners, lamp clips, tip reamers and waterproof match boxes.
Over 20 companies manufactured the simple little lamp, with “Justrite, ACME and American Bull Dog” being just a few of the more popular brands. Advertising slogans promoted the device with ads stating, “The Lamp That Puts Daylight Underground”, “The Lamp with the Trouble Left Out” or “The Lamp for Miners-Invented by a Miner-Used by Most Miners.”
Advertising slogans didn’t help the 54 miners killed in the Christmas Eve explosion of 1932. The employee owned Moweaqua, Illinois “Shafer” mine had over 100 miners working that day. Shortly after the start of shift, the alarm whistle started to blow, alerting the town to the disaster 625 feet below ground. Rescue crews spent 6 days searching for anyone alive. One month after the tragedy, the state investigation determined that a carbide lamp ignited the methane leak causing the explosion. Use of carbide lamps began to dwindle after word spread throughout the mining communities. With the creation of battery operated lamps, that produced better, safer and longer operating light, the carbide lamp was on its way out. The hardy little “Miner’s Shiner” is still in use today but it’s only by cavers, campers and outdoor enthusiasts.
The museum is open Friday and Saturday from 10:00am to 3:00pm. Admission is $3 per person and children 5 and under are free. Bring your family to the White Pine County Museum and mine a little history.