Monday, July 30, 2007

In the ether

Prior to 1815, there was a national scandal about fire damp. Basically in coal mines, you get a build up of gas and then when a naked flame hits it, you get an explosion. In August 1815, two men both created safety lamps and depending on whom you believe, either Davy invented the safety lamp or George Stephanson. The truth is that they both did, working independently of each other. To his dying breath, Davy, the great scientific giant believed that Stephanson had cheated and sought to discredit him. Stephanson, partly because his mind was on other matters such as locomotion, did not say much in public on the subject.
Davy felt that an uneducated man who did not know much about chemistry could not have invented the lamp, and Davy was initially awarded the prize money. However, George Stephanson had his supporters and after a lengthy investigation, he too was awarded some of the prize money.
In practice the North East miners tended to use the Geordie lamp and suffered fewer problems with fire damp. The Davy lamp because of its slightly different construction tended to overheat and this sometimes led to problems with fire damp.
The unsatisfactory point about the whole affair is that Stephanson never really did explain why he wait until August 1815 to begin his experiments. The answer is probably simple -- the scandal about fire damp had become so massive that the Grand Allies had offered Davy an award. As Stephanson worked for in a Grand Allies mine, he may have become aware of the problem and decided to do something about it.
In any case, much as Swann and Edison were working on the problem of electricity at the same time, so were Stephanson and Davy working on fire damp. It was in the ether. And I do think Stephanson showed that someone versed solely in practical experience can sometimes reach the same conclusions as someone versed in theory.
The Victorians made much of the fact that Stephanson actually risked his life when he was developing his lamp as he tested it under extreme conditions by deliberately going where the pockets of hydrogen gas was know to be. The Victorians often used George Stephanson's life as a morality tale. Illiterate mine worker comes to control the transportation network.
What is known is that George Stephanson never had much time for honours. It is said that Robert Stephanson refused a knighthood because one was not offered to his father.
The third Geordie lamp is kept in a glass case at the Lit and Phil where I saw it on Saturday. The Lit and Phil looks just the same as it has always done since 1822. I found lots of wonderful books including a biography of William Hedley, one of the fathers of locomotion. The Lit and Phil is truly a wonderful place -- so many books, so much information. I had almost forgotten what it was like to stand an independent library.


Ray-Anne said...

Hi Michelle
My father was a coal miner in North Northumberland and I do recall seeing a very old rusty lamp on a shelf he called a 'Davy' at the colliery when I was a teenager. Not used anymore of course - he had a standard helmet with a battery lamp.
But yes, they had pit ponies for years, and yes, he knew men who had worked with canaries to detect gas pockets just after the war.
La plus la change...
Ah. The joy of discovering a new Library. Christmas morning as far as I am concerned.
I am so envious! Please do not get me started on library closures in some parts of the country. Here in Hampshire they have started opening on Sundays due to public demand.
LOL Ray-Anne

Kate Hardy said...

Definitely in the ether, as I learned all about firedamp last week in Blaenavon.

Our guide said that Davy lamps were still used today because they're so effective - and he showed us just how they work. Fascinating stuff.

Michelle Styles said...

Yes, it is fascinating stuff.

And the lamps (both versions) did solve the problem.

One thing about doing research is that often you discover old rivalries and disputes that you did not know existed.