Mining as a human activity began thousands of years ago, and coal was the first mineral known to be mined.
The significance of mining though did not become known until more advanced civilizations developed, especially the ancient Greeks and Romans. Other than coal, they also mined metals such as copper, gold, silver, and mercury.
The miner’s headlamp history started with the dawn of commercial coal mining, which, in North America, started in the 1740s. It became obvious early on that a lack of light was a problem that needed to be solved, both to hasten the work, and to provide more safety for the miners.
It began with the use of fire, this being the only source of light back then. So that’s where we’ll start.
Flame and Candle
Before the advent of lamps, miners used a naked flame as a source of light while they worked inside the shafts. The use of flames also provided ventilation. They maintained small fires in the larger mines to provide convection and move the air around within the mine.
The miners would use candles to navigate and shed light on wherever they needed to work.
While this gave the miner’s illumination, it created another problem. In the process of coal formation, methane gas is produced, and mining the coal frequently exposed the miners to it. Methane gas is extremely flammable and likely to cause fires and explosions, even if present in low concentrations.
Other gases produced from mining, including hydrogen, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and others, also contributed to causing fires and explosions. This led to the deaths of many miners, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th century.
A search was on for a solution to prevent such disastrous accidents, and around 1733 in the north-east of England, Carlisle Spedding created a flint and steel mill, which he hoped would produce sparks to provide lighting in the area’s coal mines.
Back then, they thought sparks would be incapable of ignition, but that was proven wrong with a disaster that occurred at Wallsend colliery in 1783.
In 1813, William Reid Clanny made one of the first safety lamps, where the flame is separated from the outside using water seals. The design wasn’t practical, though, as it required constant pumping to keep running. It fell out of use fairly quickly with the advent of better safety lamp designs.
Note: The biggest mining disaster in US history was on December 6, 1907, when at least 367 men were killed in an explosion in Monongah, West Virginia. It is believed to have been caused by an open flame lamp igniting methane gas or coal dust
The first appearance of a miner’s headlamp, the oil-wick lamp, was in 1850 in Scotland. It became popular and remained that way until the 1920s.
This device, which looks very much like a teapot, had a simple design. They were usually made of brass. A hinged lid sat atop the font, and there was a hook in the back to attach it to the miner’s cap.
The miners would use a mixture of fat and oil as a fuel source. It would travel up the wick inside the lamp, all the way to the top of the spout, and this is where the flame would be.
This proved to be better than candles in that it produced a brighter flame which also lasted longer, it was portable, and it allowed the miner to keep their hands free while using it.
However, the miners often used a mixture of lard oil and kerosene, which was cheap, as a source for the flame. The lamp produced a lot of thick smoke, which could end up irritating the miner’s eyes and staining their faces with soot.
Further modifications were made to the oil-wick lamp to make it better, such as attaching a drip ring to catch any oil drops falling from the spout. Sometimes a reflector would also be attached so that the miner could use it to direct the light to where he wanted to work.
Despite the oil-wick lamp being easy to wear and carry around, it nevertheless relied on the use of naked flame, which still led to fires and explosions inside many mines.
These safety lamps relied on shielding the flame away from any outside gases. But they were too cumbersome to carry, and their lighting was not the most efficient.
Eventually, carbide lamps gradually phased out oil-wick lamps.
Carbide lamps became popular in the United States during the early 1900s, replacing oil-wick lamps as the miner’s headlamp. They got their name from one of their fuel components, calcium carbide. It reacts with water to produce acetylene gas, which burns with a clean white flame.
Acetylene gas was already known, discovered by Edmund Davy in 1836, but there were no means to produce calcium carbide on a commercial scale to make the lamps.
Thomas Wilson discovered a method in 1894. After this, it wasn’t long until someone came up with a way to use it to improve the miner’s life.
According to the US patents office, Frederick Baldwin is the first person to produce a working design for a carbide lamp, which he patented in the year 1900.
Not long after, various designers and manufacturers produced carbide lamps on a mass scale. They came in different sizes, but they all shared the same fundamental design.
The lamp comprised two chambers, where the upper chamber held water and the lower chamber held the calcium carbide. A controlled mechanism allowed the water to drip into the lower chamber, reacting with the calcium carbide and producing acetylene gas.
The gas ends up funneling into a burner, which produced the needed flame for light. The flame’s brightness could be increased or decreased by using the controlled dripping mechanism to allow more water to flow into the lower chambers.
The carbide lamp proved superior to its predecessors. First, it produced a brighter flame than both oil-wick lamps and candles. Second, it consumed less oxygen and produced no carbon monoxide, so the flame was clean, and no thick smoke came from it.
It still had its problems, though. The lamp would have an average runtime of about four hours, which required the miner to replace the fuel in the middle of their shift.
The flame was also prone to get blown out by any strong air currents or concussive force. The danger of ending up having a disastrous accident in the mine was also still there because the lamp operated using naked flames.
The popularity of carbide lamps was short-lived as electricity-powered lamps came onto the scene, eventually replacing them all by the mid-20th century.
Electric lamps were beginning to be used widely in homes and other industries. After repeated mine disasters, some of the worst recorded, there was pressure to make the same thing available to miners.
In 1910 in the US, Congress established the US Bureau of Mining (USBM). This institution began its work researching and evaluating the safety of electric lighting technology. Two years later, they began conducting tests on how likely an incandescent bulb would end up igniting if its glowing filament was exposed.
Following the results, they introduced safety features into the lamp’s designs.
They also tested other attributes, including durability, liability to leak electrolyte, the period of operation, light output and more. The purpose was to create a testing process with certain conditions and requirements so that any future lamp would not end up causing ignition and would be suitable for use by miners.
In 1914, two engineers from the USBM, John Ryan and George Deike, got together and started the Mine Safety Applications Company. They enlisted the help of Thomas Edison to develop electric lamps that miners could use.
He created a rechargeable battery that was small enough to be carried on the miner’s belt and later on the cap. Thus, the first electric headlamp by Edison was approved by the USBM in 1915.
The USBM then approved another seven models in the next two years. It wasn’t much longer before the USBM had approved as many as 70,000 lamps for use in mining.
The design comprised three key parts: a battery that was attached to the miner’s belt, a cord that went up his back to the rear of the hard hat, with the lamp attached to the front.
At first, the batteries used were alkaline. Leakage was not uncommon, and miners would often get injured. Later on, lead-acid batteries would be used as an alternative to tackle this problem.
The electric cap lamps found overwhelming acceptance amongst the mining industry very quickly, replacing both carbide and safety lamps. They were much safer and proved to be a deterrent against further catastrophes in mines.
It was now only a matter of improving the light bulb and the battery.
Fluorescent cap lamps came in the 1970s, with the USBM approving one for use in 1975. They had a better light output compared to incandescent bulbs and lasted longer, but they did not find much widespread use amongst miners.
In the 1980s, the USBM and Energy Research Corporation developed a new type of nickel-cadmium battery, which quickly replaced the older lead-acid batteries having almost half the weight, less volume, and longer life.
Other developments were new reflector designs, tungsten-halogen bulbs, and segmented cords with coiled ends.
Then came LED lights and lithium-ion batteries. Eventually, they found their way into the designs of headlamps in the 1990s. The LED bulbs were almost ten times brighter than their incandescent bulb counterparts and had a much longer operating life, amounting to 50,000 hours compared to the few thousand hours for an incandescent bulb.
The new headlamps did not require cords either, as the batteries were small enough to mount directly on the helmet along with the lamp. They are now the most commonly used headlamps by miners around the world.
Currently, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is committed to developing prototype LEDs and improving the technology for illuminating mines, to make them even safer for miners.
The story of miners and their struggle with the darkness and hazards of mining goes back a long way, and it’s full of both wonderful innovations and tragedies.
From the beginning, they were looking for ways to use light in the mines as safely as possible.
Candles became oil-wick lamps, which introduced the first concept of a headlamp with a better, but dirty flame. Carbide lamps provided a brighter flame, which was much cleaner.
Electric lamps came to make things even easier and safer by entirely taking away the use of naked flames. With time, both the light and the batteries used to power it has significantly improved, with new types of bulbs and batteries being introduced.
Today’s miner’s headlamps are a world away from the beginning. It will not stop there though, as they invent better bulbs and batteries, they will eventually find their way into new headlamps, taking us further away from the darker days of mining.
One day even LED’s and lithium-ion batteries will be part of the miner’s headlamp history.