Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
I first saw carbide lamps in the tool exhibit in the Vigo County Historical Museum. I did not know what they were — light bulb sockets, perhaps? So I did some research and found that the carbide lamps were an important relic of coal mining history.
From its early days to about the 1920s, Vigo County had many coal mines. All of the men who worked in the mines needed a safe source of light. During this time the carbide lamp was invented, with the first lamp patented in 1900. The carbide lamp was much safer and more reliable than candles or oil lamps. Some of the brand names for the lamps were Autolite, Justrite, Premier and Minex.
The museum is fortunate enough to have several Justrite lamps and one Autolite. One of the Justrite lamps has a large reflector behind the wick that helps to project the light forward. The light that the carbide lamp produced was surprisingly bright and broad. It lasted about four hours, after which the lamp had to be refilled. The lamp did not drop sparks and produced little smoke. Two of the Justrite lamps have clips on them so the miner could attach it to his cap or hat.
The carbide lamp’s mode of operation was very consistent across designers and manufacturers. The lamp consists of two chambers, the upper one holding water and a lower chamber holding the calcium carbide. A threaded value or other mechanism is used to control the rate at which the water is allowed to drip into the chamber containing the calcium carbide. The resulting chemical reaction produces acetylene gas, which is then funneled to the wick of the lamp. The wick then can be lit by a built-in striker or a match. When all of the carbide in a lamp had reacted in the lower chamber, the miner would empty the carbide into a waste bag and refill the lamp.
The carbide lamps were very popular, but they had some disadvantages. They could not be used in mines which contained dangerous gases. If the carbide itself was handled carelessly, especially near water on the floor of the mine, burns or even an explosion could result. When improvements were made to battery and electric lights the number of the carbide lamps in the mines began to decline.
The carbide lamps are on permanent display in the museum’s tool room, along with other items from Vigo County’s coal industry. You may visit the museum and see them in person.
n The Vigo County Historical Society’s museum is at 1411 S. Sixth St. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through