On the Safety lamp for coal miners; with some researches on flame.

London: Rowland Hunter, 1818.

First edition, in a fine contemporary royal binding, of Davy’s invention of the safety lamp, which immediately reduced the number of fatalities in coal mines, also allowed miners to mine deeper than was previously possible and was therefore fundamental to the rapid industrialisation of Britain during the nineteenth century. The present work is “a full description of Davy’s wire-gauze lamp, and a preliminary account of his researches on flame, in which he concluded that luminosity is due to the presence of solid particles” (Norman). “Following a number of serious explosions in North East coal mines due to pockets of flammable gas known as ‘firedamp’, Humphry Davy was asked by the Rector of Bishopwearmouth (near Newcastle) to find a means of lighting coal mines safely. In an intense period of work from mid-October to December 1815, Davy made various prototype lamps. The final design was very simple: a basic lamp with a wire gauze chimney enclosing the flame. The holes let light pass through, but the metal of the gauze absorbs the heat. The lamp is safe to use because the flame can’t heat enough flammable gas to cause an explosion, although the flame itself will change colour. The lamp was successfully tested in Hebburn colliery in January 1816 and quickly went into production. The introduction of the lamp had an immediate effect, decreasing the number of fatalities per million tons of coal produced enormously and also increasing the amount of coal produced as it allowed miners to mine deeper seams of coal. In this way it made a fundamental contribution to the continuing industrialisation of Britain and to many other mining countries, during the nineteenth century. At precisely the same time however George Stephenson, a mining engineer at Killingworth Colliery, was also working on the problem. He independently invented a remarkably similar lamp and soon the two inventors were locked in a bitter dispute over priority. Davy needed to differentiate his lamp from Stephenson’s and therefore claimed that his invention was the product of scientific research, despite there being very little science in it – indeed the only science in the lamp is the discovery (made independently by Davy, Stephenson and Smithson Tennant) that explosions would not pass through narrow tubes. Davy won this battle of words going on to become President of the Royal Society, while Stephenson went on to invent the first steam-powered locomotive for the railroad” (Royal Institution). The Prince of Wales (Prince Regent at the date of publication and later George IV), whose device adorns the upper cover, knighted Davy in 1812.

Provenance: George IV (1762-1830) as Prince of Wales (binding). He was King from the death of his father, George III, on 29 January 1820 until his own death ten years later.

“Davy was indulging in his sporting activities in the Highlands of Scotland … when the plea for help came from Mr. Wilkinson and Dr. Gray (rector of Bishopwearmouth – later Bishop of Bristol). He replied immediately and said he would visit Newcastle on his return journey so as to investigate the problem. This he did in August 1815, when he spent some days in discussion with colliery owners and, in particular, with Mr Buddle (of the Wallsend Colliery) – an influential person on Tyneside and County Durham – who had endeavoured to minimize the risk of explosions by forced ventilation of his mines.

“Davy quickly ascertained the nature of the problem, and he acquired, for his return to the R[oyal] I[nstitution], bulk samples of fire-damp from various sources in the mines. In his laboratory, he reassured himself that fire-damp was, indeed (as had been demonstrated earlier by Henry and by Dalton), methane, CH4. He set about investigating the range of concentrations in which fire-damp formed an explosive mixture with air, and then focused his attention on the degree of heat needed to ignite it. He discovered that fire-damp was relatively harder to ignite than explosive mixtures of air with H2 [hydrogen] or carbonic oxide (CO) or olefiant gas (ethylene, C2H4). For the ignition of fire-damp, a higher temperature was required. Next, he studied the expansion that occurred on the explosion of various mixtures and their power of communicating flame through apertures to other explosive mixtures. These experiments yielded the clue that led him to the ultimate solution. He investigated the movement of the flame of an explosive mixture of coal gas (which consists mainly of H2, CO and C2H4) and air in a tube one-quarter of an inch in diameter and one foot long. He found that it took a second to travel from one end to the other. When the diameter of the tube was reduced to one-seventh of an inch he found that he could not make the mixture explode, although coal gas was more explosive than fire-damp. He then exploded mixtures of fire-damp via a jar connected with a bladder filled with the same mixture by means of a stopcock with an aperture of one-sixth of an inch and found that the flame did not ignite the gas in the bladder. On comparing the effect of connections between the jar and the bladder made of glass and metal, he noted that flames passed more readily through glass tubes than metal tubes of the same diameter, a fact that he attributed to the higher thermal conductivity of the metal and, hence, the cooling it produced, bearing in mind his earlier observation that – in his own words – the fire-damp requires a very strong heat for inflammation.

“Davy also established that the explosion would not pass through metal slots if their diameter was less than one-seventh of an inch, provided they were of sufficient length, nor would it pass through fine wire-gauze. The latter was an important discovery. He then examined the effect of mixing CO2 or N2 (nitrogen, azote) with the explosive mixture and found that the presence of one part of N2 in six parts of the explosive mixture deprived it of its explosive power. He obtained the same result with one part of CO2 in seven parts of the mixture. He concluded that this effect was attributable to the cooling of the flame by this admixture of an ‘inert’ gas.

“Equipped with all of these fundamental, experimental facts, Davy possessed sufficient evidence to design his first safety lamp in which, by admitting only a limited supply of air to an oil burner, in a closed lantern, the amount of CO2 and N2 would be sufficient to prevent an explosion if the air were contaminated with fire-damp. Then came his crucial test. With the lamp described above, he tested it with the lantern supplied by air through two glass tubes one-tenth of an inch in diameter, the chimney being protected in a similar manner. He then introduced this lighted lantern into a large jar containing an explosive mixture of air and fire-damp: the flame simply increased in size and then was extinguished without causing the mixture in the jar to explode …

“Davy’s first paper [‘On the fire-damp of coal mines, and on methods of lighting the mines so as to prevent its explosion,’ Philosophical Transactions 106 (1816), 1–22], written, read and printed within but weeks of his being alerted to the dangers that coal miners were exposed when working at seams that emitted fire-damp, describes 11 distinct kinds of safety lamps … Davy’s second paper [‘An account of an invention for giving light in explosive mixtures of fire-damp in coal mines, by consuming the fire-damp,’ ibid., 23-24], read to the Royal Society on 11 January 1816, explains that wire-gauze could be substituted for the glass sides of the lantern with perfect security, and this realization led him to the final form of the safety lamp. This additional invention of his consists in covering or surrounding a flame of a lamp or candle by a wire sieve; the coarsest that he tried (with perfect safety) contained 625 apertures in a square inch, and the wire itself was 1/70th of an inch in thickness; and the finest he tried contained 6400 apertures per square inch, with a wire thickness of 1/250th of an inch. Davy tested the lamp by putting it into explosive mixtures of air and methane (which he called ‘carburetted hydrogen’). When the gas burnt inside the wire-gauze, and even when it became red-hot, explosions never ensued.

“In a paper read to the Royal Society on 25 January 1816 [‘Farther experiments on the combustion of explosive mixtures confirmed by wire-gauze, with some observations of flame,’ ibid., 115-119], Davy announced that two lamps made to his new design had been tested in the mines of the Wallsend Colliery by Mr John Buddle with complete success … A few months later, Davy had the satisfaction of seeing his lamp in action in Mr. Buddle’s pits … Davy was urged, by Buddle and others, to take out a patent to protect his invention which, as Buddle said, would yield him a large income …

“Davy’s lamps were soon in action in many pits; and at a general meeting of coal owners at Newcastle in March 1817, he received a vote of thanks for his great service to the coal miners. Davy had recognized that if his lamp was exposed to an air current of six to seven feet per second, the flame was blown against the gauze and raised its temperature to the point when it would cause an explosion in dangerous concentrations of fire-damp. This danger he drew to the attention of potential uses; and in later refinements of his safety lamp, there were two shields to protect the flame from a draught. In some lamps, two gauze cylinders to diminish this risk were used. The nature of this risk, and its circumvention, was dealt with at length by Davy in his January 1817 paper [‘Some new experiments and observations on the combustion of gaseous mixtures, with an account of a method of preserving a continuous light in mixtures of inflammable gases and air without flame,’ Philosophical Transactions 107 (1817), 77-85] and in his monograph [the offered work] published in 1818 …

“Dr. W. R. Clanny, a philanthropic Irish doctor who practised in Sunderland, had seen the tragedies caused by colliery explosions, and in May 1813 he read a paper to the Royal Society on an air-tight lantern containing a candle to which air is supplied from pairs of bellows after bubbling through some water in the bottom of the lantern. The products of combustion escaped through a valve at the top of the lantern for which a water trap was later substituted. Clanny and friends tested his lantern in the most inflammable part of a colliery, where it gave light without causing an explosion. The disadvantage of Clanny’s invention was that it needed the services of a boy to carry the lamp and to work the bellows.

“The other rival was the redoubtable George Stephenson (1781–1848), the colliery engineer at Killingworth Main, who had noted that the flames of a number of candles placed to the windward of burning blowers of gas were extinguished by the burnt air which was carried towards them. He had also noted that when fire-damp was ignited, it took an appreciable time for the flame to travel from one point to another. This gave him the idea that if a lamp could be made in which the velocity of the mixture of fire-damp and air entering below the flame was sufficient to prevent the explosion pressing downwards, the burnt air would prevent it from pressing upward. Stephenson tested his first lamp successfully in a particularly dangerous part of his colliery on 21 October 1815. His later design, which then became known as ‘the Geordie’, consisted of an oil lamp with a glass chimney. Air was admitted at the side of the lamp through a series of small holes in metal plates, the diameter of the outer hole being 2/25th to 1/22nd of an inch and that of the wires 1/12th to 1/18th of an inch, the burnt gases escaping through a metal cap with small perforations. Although Stephenson’s lamp lacked the precision of detail (on which safety depends) of the Davy lamp, it is remarkable that the keen observations of the unlettered engineer should have led him to a device closely related to Davy’s. In some of the coal mines of the north of England, partly because of local patriotism, the ‘Geordie’ was preferred to the ‘Davy’ lamp. As a consequence of this rivalry, there was some opposition to a proposal (in August 1818) to present Davy with a gift of a plate in token of the miners’ and owners’ gratitude on the grounds that Stephenson was the first discoverer of the principle of the safety lamp. Davy’s supporters carried the day, and when he was in Newcastle in 1817, Sir Humphry was presented with a silver plate at a special banquet. The supporters of Stephenson collected a sum of £1000, which was presented to him with a silver tankard in recognition of the value of the ‘Geordie’. Subsequently, Davy reacted angrily to Stephenson’s claim …

“And there was a rumour, reported by Dr Alexander Marcet in a letter to Berzelius, that Davy must have known of Smithson Tennant’s unpublished experiments, showing that explosions of mixtures of coal gas and air could not pass through narrow tubes, experiments that Tennant, an English chemist, had made in 1813. The Royal Society stepped in and issued the following statement, signed by Sir Joseph Banks, PRS, W. H. Wollaston, FRS, W. T. Brande, and others:

‘Sir Humphry Davy not only discovered, independently to all others, and without any knowledge of the unpublished experiments of the late Mr. Tennant on flame, the principle of the non-communication of explosions through small apertures, but that he also has the sole merit of having first applied it to the very important purpose of a safety-lamp, which has evidently been imitated in the latest lamps of Mr. George Stephenson.’

“It is gratifying that Michael Faraday, whose honesty and purity of heart are beyond a scintilla of doubt, gave his own abbreviated account of the progress of the invention of the Davy lamp. Faraday’s notes for a lecture to the London Philosophical Society in 1817 state:

‘The great desideratum of a lamp to afford light with safety; several devised; not to mention them all but merely refer to that which alone has been found efficacious, the DAVY: this the result of pure experimental deduction. It originated in no accident nor was it forwarded by any, but was the consequence of a regular scientific investigation.’

“A report of the Select Committee appointed by Parliament in 1835 to enquire into the nature, cause and extent of those lamentable catastrophes that have occurred in the mines of Great Britain praises Davy for his inventiveness and originality. It also exonerates Stephenson of plagiarism” (Thomas).

“Davy was able to win [the priority dispute with Stephenson] by linking the lamp to the agenda of the president of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, who sought to promote the practical value of science in England for industry, for war, and for the exploitation of the empire. Davy had little difficulty in enlisting the support of the metropolitan elite of science and, by aligning himself with their Baconian ideology, neither of which Stephenson was in a position to do. Therefore, he was able to defeat Stephenson’s claims.

“Davy’s victory allowed him to use the lamp as an example of the value of science in practical matters. Because of the importance, until the 1980s, of coal mining to Britain, the lamp came to enjoy an iconic status as the premier example of the supposed dependence of technology on science. Indeed, an image of the lamp was used at the symbol of the 20th International Congress of the History of Science held in Liège, Belgium, in 1997. But Davy also reaped immediate rewards for his success. He was created a baronet in 1818, and the following year France’s Académie des Sciences elected him one of its eight foreign associates. (He had received only one vote when nominated after his visit to Paris in 1814.) The greatest prize was that by becoming so closely associated with the Banksian agenda, Davy had put himself in a position to succeed Banks as president of the Royal Society” (DSB).

Norman 613. Partington IV, pp. 61-70. Thomas, ‘Sir Humphry Davy and the coal miners of the world,’ Philosophical Transactions A373 (2014), pp. 143-163.



8vo (213 x 130mm), pp. [i-v], vi-viii, [1], 2-148, with engraved folding plate (some light spotting). Contemporary straight-grained red morocco by W.J. Smith of Brighton, gilt panelled, the Prince of Wales’s feather device gilt on upper cover, spine gilt in compartments (corners lightly rubbed). Modern red morocco box.

Item #5334

Price: $9,500.00