Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Beamish - Part III

Emerging from the drift mine, we drifted over to the lamp cabin. Picking up and leaving off one's lamp was a part of the miner's work routine. Think about sitting in the complete dark without even one's lamp and it's not hard to understand why they made such a big deal about them. Even more than that, proper maintenance and handling of lamps was critical to safety. The more or less simultaneous invention of various improvements on the acetylene lamp brought about the safety lamp, a major life-saving development.

When we entered the lamp cabin the guy behind the counter was patiently explaining about the locking mechanism on the bottom of the safety lamp. Apparently the men weren't to be trusted to keep the lamps shut, so it was locked before they took it away down the mine. The locking mechanism is a small pin that can only be removed and replaced using a large magnet. We all listened for the 'click'.

Then he talked about how mines produce methane, which is explosive and that methane gas coming into contact with the open flames of the acetylene lamp was very bad news. A guy named Davy came up with the idea of putting a very fine metal mesh around the flame, which apparently was sufficient to protect the flame from gas; only problem was that it also prevented light from coming out. Then Stephenson (of the steam locomotive fame) came up with putting a glass barrel around the flame, and moving the mesh up a bit, still protecting the flame but permitting illumination.

A third guy, a Frenchman named Marsaut added the 'bonnet' -- the solid metal part you see -- which fitted over the mesh portion and allowed intake air, but still prevented combustion, and added the locking mechanism. The lamps are often referred to as 'Davy' lamps, but their proper name is just 'safety lamp', as all these contributions went into making it was it is today - or back in that day, I mean.

He went on to list all the inspection protocol and cleaning methods, using a machine against the wall. The rotating brush he used to clean the part of the lamp reminded me of the machine I used to wash glasses behind the bar at Pizza Hut...that would have been a ridiculous 30-something years ago... Back to lamps.

He told us of the Burns disaster, a mining accident in the West Stanley colliery that claimed the lives of 168 men and boys, ages 12 to 70, back in 1909. It was thought to have been due to the opening of a lamp and the resulting methane explosion.

One of the first things I shared with my cousin in Australia, Sharon, were the notes I took back in 1990 from a book in the Oklahoma Historical Library about the history of mining in Oklahoma. I thought it was pretty exotic stuff, in part because they talked about 'unions' -- not a word I heard used much when I was growing up. Even 20 years ago, my imagination was caught up by the description of a terrible mining accident in Krebs, Oklahoma, in 1892, in which 96 men were killed and another 200 crippled. This disaster resulted in the US Government appointing an Inspector of Mines.

I typed up those scribbled notes and sent them to Sharon. She reported back that I had a great uncle who was one of the 96 men killed in that accident. So, I paid attention when the lamp cabin guy was talking about safety in mines.

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