Davy lamp

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Further information: Safety lamp
Diagram of a Davy lamp

The Davy lamp is a safety lamp for use in flammable atmospheres, invented in 1815 by Sir Humphry Davy.[1] It consists of a wick lamp with the flame enclosed inside a mesh screen. It was created for use in coal mines, to reduce the danger of explosions due to the presence of methane and other flammable gases, called firedamp or minedamp.


Davy's invention was preceded by that of William Reid Clanny, an Irish doctor at Bishopwearmouth, who had read a paper to the Royal Society in May 1813. The more cumbersome Clanny safety lamp was successfully tested at Herrington Mill, and he won medals, from the Royal Society of Arts.[2]

Despite his lack of scientific knowledge, engine-wright George Stephenson devised a lamp in which the air entered via tiny holes, through which the flames of the lamp could not pass. A month before Davy presented his design to the Royal Society, Stephenson demonstrated his own lamp to two witnesses by taking it down Killingworth Colliery and holding it in front of a fissure from which firedamp was issuing.

The first trial of a Davy lamp with a wire sieve was at Hebburn Colliery on 9 January 1816.[3] The news about Davy's lamp was made public at a Royal Society meeting in Newcastle on 3 November 1815, and the paper describing the lamp was formally presented on 9 November.[4] For it, Davy was awarded the Society's Rumford Medal. Davy's lamp differed from Stephenson's in that the flame was surrounded by a screen of gauze, whereas Stephenson's prototype lamp had a perforated plate contained in a glass cylinder. For his invention Davy was awarded £2,000, whilst Stephenson was accused of stealing the idea from Davy, because he was not seen as an adequate scientist who could have produced the lamp by any approved scientific method.

A local committee of enquiry gathered in support of Stephenson, exonerated him, proved he had been working separately to create the 'Geordie lamp', and awarded him £1,000, but Davy and his supporters refused to accept their findings, and would not see how an uneducated man such as Stephenson could come up with the solution he had. In 1833 a House of Commons committee found that Stephenson had equal claim to having invented the safety lamp. Davy went to his grave believing that Stephenson had stolen his idea. The Stephenson lamp was used almost exclusively in North East England, whereas the Davy lamp was used everywhere else. The experience gave Stephenson a lifelong distrust of London-based, theoretical, scientific experts.[5][6]

Design and theory[edit]

A type of Davy lamp with apertures for gauging flame height

The lamp consists of a wick lamp with the flame enclosed inside a mesh screen. The screen acts as a flame arrestor; air (and any firedamp present) can pass through the mesh freely enough to support combustion, but the holes are too fine to allow a flame to propagate through them and ignite any firedamp outside the mesh. It originally burned a heavy vegetable oil.

The lamp also provided a test for the presence of gases. If flammable gas mixtures were present, the flame of the Davy lamp burned higher with a blue tinge. Lamps were equipped with a metal gauge to measure the height of the flame. Miners could place the safety lamp close to the ground to detect gases, such as carbon dioxide, that are denser than air and so could collect in depressions in the mine; if the mine air was oxygen-poor (asphyxiant gas), the lamp flame would be extinguished (black damp or chokedamp). A methane-air flame is extinguished at about 17% oxygen content (which will still support life), so the lamp gave an early indication of an unhealthy atmosphere, allowing the miners to get out before they died of asphyxiation.


Paradoxically, the introduction of the Davy lamp led to an increase in mine accidents, as the lamp encouraged the working of mines and parts of mines that had previously been closed for safety reasons.[7]

Men continued to work in conditions which were unsafe due to the presence of methane gas. Although extractor ventilation fans should have been installed to reduce the concentration of methane in the air, this would have been expensive for mine owners, and thus such fans were not installed. A legal requirement[when?] for minimum air-quality standards eventually led to the introduction of more ventilation. The lamps also had to be provided by the miners themselves, not the owners, as traditionally the miners bought their own candles from the company store.

Another reason for the increase in accidents was the unreliability of the lamps themselves. The bare gauze was easily damaged, and once just a single wire broke or rusted away, the lamp became unsafe. Even when new and clean, illumination from the safety lamps was very poor, and the problem was not fully resolved until electric lamps became widely available in the late 19th century.


A modern-day equivalent of the Davy lamp is the Protector Garforth GR6S[citation needed] flame safety lamp which is used for firedamp testing in all UK coal mines. A modified version of this lamp has been used in the Olympic Flame torch relays. It was used in the relays for the Sydney, Athens, Turin, Beijing, Vancouver and Singapore Youth Olympic Games. It was also used for the Special Olympics Shanghai, Pan American and Central African games and for the London 2012 Summer Olympics relay.[8]

Lamps are still made in Eccles, Greater Manchester,[9] in Aberdare, South Wales[10] and in Kolkata, India.[11]

A replica of a Davy lamp is located in front of the ticket office at the Stadium of Light (Sunderland AFC) which is built on a former coal mine.

In 2015 Bersham Colliery in Wrexham, Wales, which is now a mining museum, invited visitors to bring their Davy Lamps and other industrial heirlooms to the museum for identification.[12] The National Mining Museum Scotland at Newtongrange, Scotland, also celebrated the 200th anniversary of the invention.[13] In 2016, The Royal Institution of Great Britain, where the Davy Lamp prototype is displayed, decided to have the life-saving invention 3D scanned, reverse engineered and presented to the museum visitors in a more accessible digital format via a virtual reality cabinet. At first sight it appears to be a traditional display cabinet but has a touch screen with various options for visitors to view and reference the virtual exhibits inside.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brief History of the Miner's Flame Safety Lamp at minerslamps.net. Accessed 7 July 20121
  2. ^ Knight, David (1992) Humphry Davy: Science and Power. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, (Chapter 8: The Safety Lamp), ISBN 0-631-16816-8
  3. ^ Thompson, Roy (2004). Thunder underground: Northumberland mining disasters, 1815–1865. Landmark. p. 121. ISBN 978-1-84306-169-4. Retrieved 8 January 2013. 
  4. ^ Davy, H. (1816). "On the Fire-Damp of Coal Mines, and on Methods of Lighting the Mines So as to Prevent Its Explosion". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 106: 1. doi:10.1098/rstl.1816.0001. 
  5. ^ Davies, Hunter (1975). George Stephenson. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-76934-0. 
  6. ^ In his book 'George and Robert Stephenson,' the author L.T.C. Rolt relates that opinion varied about the two lamps efficiency; that the Davy Lamp gave more light, but the Geordie Lamp was thought to be safer in a more gaseous atmosphere. He made reference to an incident at Oaks Colliery in Barnsley where both lamps were in use. Following a sudden strong influx of gas the tops of all the Davy Lamps became red hot (which had in the past caused an explosion, and in so doing risked another), whilst all the Geordie Lamps simply went out.
  7. ^ Christopher Lawrence, The power and the glory: Humphry Davy and Romanticism, reference in Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine, Romanticism and the Sciences Cambridge: University Press, 1990 page 224
  8. ^ Peck, Tom Let the flames begin: Beckham gets the home fires burning The Independent, 19 May 2012. Accessed 12 July 2012
  9. ^ Protector Safety Lamp Company, Eccles at Heritage Photo Archive. Accessed 7 July 2012
  10. ^ Aberdare – Cambrian Lamp Works – E. Thomas & Williams at Rhondda Cynon Taf Library Service. Accessed 7 July 2012
  11. ^ J. K. Dey and Sons Official website. Accessed 7 July 2012
  12. ^ "Mining museum celebrates 200 years of Davy Lamps - BBC News". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 17 February 2016. 
  13. ^ "Celebrating 200 Years of the Flame Safety Lamp". National Mining Museum. Retrieved 17 February 2016. 
  14. ^ Ltd, Digital Parent Company. "3D scanning Davy Lamp|Physical Digital". www.physicaldigital.com. Retrieved 2016-05-09. 

Further reading[edit]

  • James, F.A.J.L. How big is a hole?: the problems of the practical application of science in the invention of the miners' safety lamp by Humphry Davy and George Stephenson in late Regency England Transactions, Newcomen Society 75(2) 2005, 175–227

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