Carbide or battery — lighting the Aspen underground
After around 1915, miners debated which technology they favored to light their work underground, a carbide lamp or a battery light. Both were superior to candles and oil lamps that would blow out when air circulated too quickly.
Carbide lamps were introduced first, around 1900. They worked by mixing water with calcium carbide to create a flammable acetylene gas. Early automobiles also used them, although a larger version. The miner’s lamp was sized to fit on a miner’s safety helmet and their weight and size did not impede work. Another important feature was that you did not need a match to ignite it, a small spark was sufficient, the same way lighters work today.
I remember playing with carbide lamps as we had a few in our shed saved from the Midnight Mine. I would open them and see the carbide pellets in the bottom chamber. Carbide has a distinctive odor, one I imagine miners, at first, found objectionable compared to candles.
Tagert Mercantile Company in the Elks Building and Tomkins Hardware a block away on Galena sold the lamps and the carbide. The early models sold for around $90 in today’s dollars and by 1913 the priced dropped to $22. The carbide came from one of the original Union Carbide companies, Prest-O-Lite, in Indianapolis.
Carbide lamps were fairly safe to use, but there were accidents. In 1925, Joe Gregorich working at the Smuggler Mine opened a can of carbide and it exploded, badly burning his face. He had his light too close to the can, igniting it. Similarly, in 1940 S. C. Swearington burned his face and hands while removing carbide from a can. His hard hat and glasses saved him from losing his sight.
Mines, many in Aspen, illuminated their tunnels with electric lights jumping directly from candlepower to electric. Like with carbide, it solved the problem of breezes blowing out candles and oil lamps. The light was also brighter.
It was revolutionary for coal miners. Coalmines are notorious for gasses, some easily ignited by flame. Any flame from a candle or a carbide light could create an explosion. The limitation was the hard wiring. A miner needed to take his light with him.
Electric lanterns powered by battery made their appearance shortly after being invented by Thomas Edison in 1914. In the early days of battery lights there were two problems. The early ones were only two watts, a very dim light in a very dark space. The other problem was the limited amount of time your battery would power the light, insufficient for even an eight-hour day at a time when 10 hours was common.
Batteries improved and the systems for recharging reduced the time it took to fully charge. Batteries, however, were not light. Miners had battery packs that they hung on their belts with a power line connecting to the light on their hard hats that often got in the way. Some miners preferred carbide lamps to battery even after improvements to the batter version.
The Midnight Mine converted entirely to battery during World War II when they ran round-the-clock producing lead and zinc for the war effort. The mile-and-a-quarter main tunnel was lit with hard-wired lighting, but battery light was used everywhere else.
Even today, some spelunking explorers prefer carbide to battery. Carbide lamps are also a hot item in antique stores bought for the nostalgia and shiny brass color with no intention of lighting them.
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