Original Map: Ordnance Survey Old Series 1:50,000 – 1867
Sir Humphry Davy (17 December 1778 – 29 May 1829), a chemist and inventor born in Penzance in Cornwall, tested his Davy safety lamp for miners at Hebburn Colliery. Three years later Davy was awarded a baronetcy, at the time the highest honour ever conferred on a man of science in Britain. In 1820 he became President of the Royal Society.
Davy’s lamp was made public at a Royal Society meeting in Newcastle, three years after the Felling mine disaster in 1812. Davy had discovered that a flame enclosed inside a fine mesh cannot ignite firedamp (a name given to a number of flammable gases, especially methane). 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. 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 also 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 (black damp or chokedamp); if the mine air was oxygen-poor the lamp flame would go out.
Unfortunately the introduction of the Davy lamp led to an increase in mine accidents. Although the principle was perfectly sound the lamp encouraged the Mine owners to work mines and parts of mines that had previously been closed for safety reasons. A contributing factor to this rise 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 a hazard in itself.
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