Talk to Shed Light on First Safety Lamp

Letters and the Lamp: Sir Humphry Davy, 1778-1829

The contents of a fascinating collection of as yet unpublished letters written by Sir Humphry Davy, inventor of the Davy Lamp will be examined in a free talk to be given next month at Woodhorn Museum.

Professor Sharon Ruston, who is Chair in Romanticism at Lancaster University and co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford University Press edition of The Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy, will be giving the presentation at 2pm on Wednesday 5th October.

The letters penned by Cornish chemist Davy were written to Reverend John Hodgson, a clergyman who played an important role in the invention of the safety lamp. Passionate about the prevention of accidents in mines and in particular the issue of explosive firedamp gas, Reverend Hodgson was one of the first men to venture underground to test Davy’s new lamp.

Prior to the invention of the safety lamp, men worked underground in mines with candles and naked flame. Explosions were frequent and lives lost on a regular basis. Early safety measures were limited to testing with a flame and venting or deliberate firing, and monitoring air pressure – a drop could indicate an increased likelihood of gas.

Various attempts were made to develop a safe source of light but with limited success. The Clany lamp with its bellows pumping air through water was impractical and gave out only weak light, but then, within a very short time and almost simultaneously came lamps by George Stephenson and Humphry Davy.

The collection of Davy letters being explored in this captivating talk will shed new light on the controversy over who was the creator of the first safety lamp. Many of the 600 letters in the collection are located in the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn. Their contents clearly illustrate the fiercely fought contest between Stephenson and Davy regarding which lamp was invented first, and which was the most effective. Davy continually refers to his rival in less than polite terms and even accuses him of piracy. With the backing of the great and good, Davy ultimately claimed victory and the prize.

Seats for the talk are free of charge but spaces are limited so reservations are recommended by calling 01670 624455. Normal museum parking charges apply.

Schools interested in the invention of the safety lamp can apply for a free workshop at Woodhorn. Enquiries should be addressed to the museum’s Education Department on 01670 624477 or email [email protected]

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