Geordie lamp

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Stephenson's safety lamp shown with Davy's lamp on the left

The Geordie lamp was a safety lamp for use in flammable atmospheres, invented by George Stephenson in 1815 as a miner's lamp to prevent explosions due to firedamp in coal mines.

Origin[edit]

In 1815, Stephenson was the engine-wright at the Killingworth Colliery in Northumberland and had been experimenting for several years with candles close to firedamp emissions in the mine. In August he ordered an oil lamp which was delivered on 21 October and tested by him in the mine in the presence of explosive gases. He improved this over several weeks with the addition of capillary tubes at the base so that it gave more light and tried new versions on 4 and 30 November. This was presented to the Literary and Philosophical Society (Lit & Phil) of Newcastle upon Tyne on the 5th December 1815.[1]

Although controversy arose between Stephenson's design and the Davy lamp (invented by Humphry Davy in the same year), Stephenson's original design worked on significantly different principles from Davy's final design.[2] If the lamp were sealed except for a restricted air ingress (and a suitably sized chimney) then the presence of dangerous amounts of firedamp in the incoming air would (by its combustion) reduce the oxygen concentration inside the lamp so much that the flame would be extinguished. (Stephenson had convinced himself of the validity of this approach by his experiments with candles near lit blowers: as lit candles were placed upwind of the blower the blower flame grew duller; with enough upwind candles the blower flame went out.)[3]:103 To guard against the possibility of a flame travelling back through the incoming gases (an explosive backblast), air ingress was by a number of small-bore orifices through which the air flowed at a velocity higher than the velocity of the flame in a mixture of firedamp (mostly methane) and air. The body of the lamp was lengthened to give the flame a greater convective draw, and thus allow a greater inlet flow restriction and make the lamp less sensitive to air currents. Davy had originally attempted a safety lamp on similar principles, before preferring to enclose the flame inside a brass gauze cylinder; he had publically identified the importance of allowing the restricted airflow in through small orifices (in which the flame velocity is lower) before Stephenson had, and he and his adherents remained convinced that Stephenson had not made this discovery independently.[4]

One advantage of Stephenson's design over Davy's was that if the proportion of firedamp became too high, his lamp would be extinguished, whereas Davy's lamp could become dangerously hot. This was illustrated in the Oaks colliery at Barnsley on 20 August 1857 where both types of lamp were in use.[5]

Stephenson's design used glass to surround the flame, which cut out less of the light than Davy's, where the gauze surrounded it.[6] But this also posed the danger of breakage in the harsh conditions of mineworking, a problem which was not resolved until the invention of safety glass. Stephenson tried several different designs in early years and later adopted Davy's gauze in preference to the tubes and it was this revised design that was used for most of the 19th century as the Geordie lamp.

The Geordie lamp continued to be used in the north-east of England through most of the 19th century, until the introduction of electric lighting.

Plate 1 and descriptive text for this, and plate 2, from page 32-33 of Report Upon the Claims of Mr. George Stephenson, Relative to the Invention of His Safety Lamp, by the Committee Appointed at a Meeting Holden in Newcastle November 1st 1817[7]
George Stephenson's safety lamp as drawn in 1817.

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