September 23, 2010
You have seen them in antique stores, especially in mining towns: tarnished brass cylinders with a reflective dish on one side and a bracket for clipping them onto a helmet on the opposite side. These carbide lamps were the flashlights of their time, used on bicycles and cars, and used by miners to illuminate their underground workplaces.
Carbide lamps took hold in Aspen mines soon after F.E. Baldwin patented a practical design in 1900. They replaced candles that burn too quickly, give off little light, and blow out at awkward moments. Carbide lamps produced a stronger beam of light with their reflective discs. A miner could focus on the exact spot he was working on. Miners clipped the lamps onto their protective hardhats so they could focus the light by turning their heads. That hands-free attribute was not practical when using candles.
Carbide lamps contained enough fuel to last a whole shift. Their use eliminated the time-consuming task of hauling boxes of candles. They were not perfect, as they did go out occasionally, but their light was nowhere near as vulnerable as the candle flames.
The carbide lamp is a very simple device. It has two chambers: one holds water and the other holds calcium carbide. As the water comes in contact with the calcium carbide, acetylene gas forms and burns brightly. The lamps sported flint strikers similar to those in a cigarette lighter. Turning a small wheel produced a spark sufficient to ignite the acetylene.
You may be more aware of the torches that are used by welders when they cut steel. When mixed with oxygen, acetylene produces a concentrated flame that is hot enough to melt steel. It gives off a distinct odor that is as pungent as mercaptan, the ingredient added to propane to notify you of dangerous leaks. Carbide lamps gave off a similar odor, but after breathing it all day, every day, you got used to it.
Early automobiles like the Ford Model T used carbide lamps for headlights. Adding a glass screen in front of the flame to keep it from blowing out provided a practical solution to night driving. The carbide beam was strong enough to safely light the road ahead if you were not traveling too fast. A similar but smaller version was popular on bicycles. Even lighthouses used carbide lamps. People still find carbide lamps to be useful, especially spelunkers who need a lamp with a longer life than a battery can provide.
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Miners reluctantly replaced carbide lamps with battery-driven lights. Certainly an odorless battery light was a welcome addition to the confined and stagnant air spaces underground. But early battery lamps had their own problems. Mostly, the weight of batteries awkwardly hung on your belt, restricting movement. Miners kept their carbide lamps, preferring to use them in many situations.
Sheds and garages around Aspen sheltered the ancient lamps on their shelves alongside two-pound tins of Union Carbide brand carbide crystals. As a child, I found it magical to watch my father fill and light his carbide lamp. The idea of mixing water with smelly rocks to get light appeared as quite a chemistry experiment. Even so, the “don’t play with fire” rule in my household included those mysterious brass cylinders.