This year marks 200 years since the invention of the Geordie Lamp – a revolutionary invention by George Stephenson – which is on view off our reception until Christmas.
In 1812, Stephenson was an engine-wright at Killingworth High Pit. In this role, he was in charge of all of the colliery machine of the Grand Allies. Because this machinery was not only above ground, but also below, Stephenson spent a lot of time actually down in the mines carrying out maintenance and repairs. He was all too well aware of the poor working conditions that the miners had to deal with, and the casualties that took place due to firedamp explosions. Indeed, in a previous role, he had been working at the West Moor pit in when a firedamp explosion killed 10 miners.
Firedamp is the combination of several gases, which are highly flammable. Firedamp collects in pockets in the coal, so when the coal is penetrated the firedamp becomes explosive between concentrations of between 4 and 16%. Given that miners were using candles with open flames to illuminate their work, this was exceptionally dangerous. After the Felling Mine disaster claimed the lives of 92 in 1812, it became clear that something needed to be done to make the working conditions in the mines safer.
Subsequently, the Sunderland Society was set up, and thus began Stephenson’s attempts at inventing a lamp which would be safe for use in the mines. His lamp was based on the fact that a lighted candle could be used inside a lamp – as long as there was sufficient speed to the air passing to the flame. According to a letter which Stephenson writes to Robert Brandling, which is held in the Institution archives, Stephenson went through 3 designs (and dangerous testing!) until by 20 November 1815, he had a lamp that he was happy with.
It is of course to be noted that at the same time Stephenson was working on his lamp, Sir Humphry Davy was also designing a lamp. As a recognised scientist, his lamp (which was similar to Stephenson’s, bar it using wire gauze instead of a perforated cover), received much more publicity. He announced his invention at a meeting of the Royal Society in Newcastle on 5th November 1815. Colliery owners started to commission Davy lamps – which caused a ruckus in the mining community, where Stephenson and his Geordie lamp were already known about. The Royal Society had awarded Davy with £1,000 prize money for his invention – and many local colliery owners, and other members of the society, thought that Stephenson also deserved more than the £100 the Royal Society had offered him. Stephenson subsequently, encouraged by Charles Brandling, a Gosforth colliery owner, to produce a pamphlet laying out the importance and individuality of his own design. He writes:
“[I] constructed a lamp with three tubes and one with small perforations without knowing that Sir Humphrey had adopted the same idea…you are bound to give me credit unless by evidence of facts and dates you are able to disprove it”. Read Stephenson’s collected papers on the invention.
After this, a subscription was opened up and £1,000 collected by Newcastle members to compensate Stephenson, for what they felt was an overlooking of his invention. The Geordie lamp was favoured in the mines of the North East of England, where Stephenson had a strong reputation as professional and diligent, and was used into the 19th century.
Today, the principles of the miners’ safety lamp are used for keeping the Olympic torch flame burning. Tradition states that the flame must not go out, so when it’s not on the torch it is transferred to glass lanterns which act in exactly the same way as the Geordie lamp did.