Show & Tell: The Lamp That Saved Coal Miners' Lives

Paul Wilkinson

Coal, as the chemist Sir Humphry Davy observed in his 1818 book describing the development of this Davy Safety Lamp, was at the heart of much of early 19th-century England’s industrial progress. “Essential in affording warmth and preparing food, it yields a sort of artificial sunshine, and in some measure compensates for the disadvantages of our climate,” he wrote. “By means of it, metallurgical processes are carried on, and the most important materials of civilized life furnished … Not only manufactories and private houses, but even whole streets are lighted by its application.”

Yet this wonderful material needed to be mined by men (and boys) who were taking great risks with their lives. Ironically enough, given coal’s light-giving properties, one of their major problems as workers was illumination. Miners carrying lamps could run into pockets of methane gas, then often called firedamp, which would explode when it came into contact with the flame. (An 1883 glossary of mining terms tells us that miners called cavities in coal seams “bags of foulness,” an epithet that gives some sense of their dread of such spots.)

In his book On the Safety Lamp for Coal Miners, Davy describes—in a deliberately dry fashion intended to forestall morbid curiosity—the effects of such explosions:

The phenomena are always of the same kind. The miners are either immediately destroyed by the explosion, and thrown with the horses and machinery through the shaft into the air, the mine becoming as it were an enormous piece of artillery, from which they are projected; or they are gradually suffocated, and undergo a more painful death from the carbonic acid and azote remaining in the mine after the inflammation of the fire damp; or what, though it appears the mildest, is perhaps the most severe fate, they are burnt or maimed, and often rendered incapable of labor and of healthy enjoyment for life.

In 1812 a firedamp explosion in the Felling mine, in northeast England near Newcastle, killed 92 workers. In the aftermath, a concerned clergyman asked Davy, who was employed by the Royal Institution as a chemist, experimenter, and public educator, and who had by that point in his career gained both fame and a knighthood, to find a safer way to illuminate the mines.

Davy experimented on the lamp in his London laboratory throughout the fall of 1815. Given the contemporary level of understanding of the action of flame, his experiments were quite dangerous. He eventually arrived at a design that seems, in retrospect, obvious: a flame surrounded by iron wire gauze, which would allow light out, but absorb the heat that caused the explosions.

Image credit: Paul Wilkinson

Davy’s lamp was widely adopted after successful tests in January 1816. Although he was urged to patent the invention, he decided not to profit off of the design. Even though he didn’t claim intellectual priority, he found himself drawn into a fight with engineer George Stephenson, who had invented a different, less effective kind of safety lamp at the same time, and needed to prove that he had come up with the idea first. Davy eventually won that battle, but Stephenson was to go on to make a different kind of mark on the industrial landscape by inventing and perfecting the first steam-powered locomotive.  

Biographer Richard Holmes writes that despite his refusal to patent the lamp, Davy was nonetheless “hugely proud of his achievement, and was never modest about it.” The chemist received a medal from the Royal Society and was made a baronet; he even “designed his own coat of arms, showing the safety lamp encircled with a Latin motto which announced: ‘I Built The Light Which Brings Safety.’”

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Roadside Bear Statue in Wales is So Lifelike That Safety Officials Want It Removed
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Wooden bear statue.

There are no real bears in the British Isles for residents to worry about, but a statue of one in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells has become a cause of concern. As The Telegraph reports, the statue is so convincing that it's scaring drivers, causing at least one motorist to crash her car. Now road safety officials are demanding it be removed.

The 10-foot wooden statue has been a fixture on the roadside for at least 15 years. It made headlines in May of 2018 when a woman driving her car saw the landmark and took it to be the real thing. She was so startled that she veered off the road and into a street sign.

After the incident, she complained about the bear to highways officials who agreed that it poses a safety threat and should be removed. But the small town isn't giving in to the Welsh government's demands so quickly.

The bear statue was originally erected on the site of a now-defunct wool mill. Even though the mill has since closed, locals still see the statue as an important landmark. Llanwrtyd Wells councilor Peter James called it an "iconic gateway of the town," according to The Telegraph.

Another town resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that the woman who crashed her car had been a tourist from Canada where bears are common. Bear were hunted to extinction in Britain about 1000 years ago, so local drivers have no reason to look out for the real animals on the side of the road.

The statue remains in its old spot, but Welsh government officials plan to remove it themselves if the town doesn't cooperate. For now, temporary traffic lights have been set up around the site of the accident to prevent any similar incidents.

[h/t The Telegraph]

The Most Popular Infomercial Product in Each State

You don't have to pay $19.95 plus shipping and handling to discover the most popular infomercial product in each state: AT&T retailer All Home Connections is giving that information away for free via a handy map.

The map was compiled by cross-referencing the top-grossing infomercial products of all time with Google Trends search interest from the past calendar year. So, which crazy products do people order most from their TVs?

Folks in Arizona know that it's too hot there to wear layers; that's why they invest in the Cami Secret—a clip-on, mock top that gives them the look of a camisole without all the added fabric. No-nonsense New Yorkers are protecting themselves from identity theft with the RFID-blocking Aluma wallet. Delaware's priorities are all sorted out, because tons of its residents are still riding the Snuggie wave. Meanwhile, Vermont has figured out that Pajama Jeans are the way to go—because who needs real pants?

Unsurprisingly, the most popular product in many states has to do with fitness and weight loss, because when you're watching TV late enough to start seeing infomercials, you're probably also thinking to yourself: "I need to get my life together. I should get in shape." Seven states—Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, and Wisconsin—have invested in the P90X home fitness system, while West Virginia and Arkansas prefer the gentler workout provided by the Shake Weight. The ThighMaster is still a thing in Illinois and Washington, while Total Gym and Bowflex were favored by South Dakota and Wyoming, respectively. 

Kitchen items are clearly another category ripe for impulse-buying: Alabama and North Dakota are all over the George Forman Grill; Alaska and Rhode Island are mixing things up with the Magic Bullet; and Floridians must be using their Slice-o-matics to chop up limes for their poolside margaritas.

Cleaning products like OxiClean (D.C. and Hawaii), Sani Sticks (North Carolina), and the infamous ShamWow (which claims the loyalty of Mainers) are also popular, but it's Proactiv that turned out to be the big winner. The beloved skin care system claimed the top spot in eight states—California, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas—making it the most popular item on the map.

Peep the full map above, or check out the full study from All Home Connections here.

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