200 years of using Humphry Davy’s Miners’ Safety Lamp

Frank James, Professor of the History of Science and Head of Collections, explains how the Ri's own collection of Davy's original manuscripts reveals the process behind the development of the Davy Lamp.

This year marks the bicentenary of the deployment of the Miners’ gauze safety lamp invented in December 1815 following two months of concentrated work by Humphry Davy assisted by Michael Faraday in the basement laboratory of the Royal Institution. Davy’s lamp was first tested in Hebburn colliery, County Durham, on 9 January 1816 and in the years following it was manufactured in its tens of thousands and widely used throughout the world. The use of the lamp both saved the lives of countless coalminers, but also permitted increased coal production vital to continuing industrialisation. 

  • Davy's original manuscripts

    Credit: Royal Institution

In the absence of entries in the Royal Institution’s laboratory notebook, one of the few sources which sheds light on Davy’s path to the successful invention is a manuscript volume held in the archives of the Royal Institution (RI MS HD/11) that contains Davy’s drafting and redrafting of his first paper on the miners’ safety lamp. Davy’s path to this invention in those weeks was a very intense process involving changing his mind rapidly several times about the best form that a safety lamp should take.

The unpredictable way in which Davy’s thought and work progressed during this period is reflected in this volume. Davy’s original paper was copied by Faraday and sent to the Royal Society of London where it was read on 9 November 1815.  However, following its reading, Davy developed further ideas and these were reflected in a second copy, also made by Faraday, to which Davy added significantly and moved whole passages around as cross referencing the two versions illustrate.

Davy also made many alterations and additions to this text, including removing a less than favourable comment on contemporary chemists. He originally thought that this would be the final text, as evinced by the production of an illustrative plate, which would have cost some money. However, he then found that all he had to do was to enclose flame in metal gauze which absorbed the heat (thus preventing explosion) and allowed light to pass through the holes. This discovery of the properties of gauze necessitated withdrawing the plate (thus making the example in the manuscript the only surviving copy). Faraday then made the final version of the paper for the Royal Society of London for publication the following year. 

  • The Davy Lamp

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson

To mark this key anniversary in coal mining history the Royal Institution is partnering with ArchAlive to publish a unique edition of this manuscript volume. The book, which will be available by subscription only, will be produced to the highest standards by Blissetts, bookbinder to HM The Queen. It will be printed on acid free paper, bound and protected in its own bespoke slip-case. Each subscriber will be listed in the book and will receive access to the searchable e-book of the text and Frank James’s Presidential Address to Newcomen Society detailing the history of the lamp.

This book and this manuscript is a unique record of the combined creative work of Humphry Davy, the leading English chemist of the day, and Michael Faraday who would eventually succeed Davy in that role.

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