Defying the Darkness

Our region has a history of mining that goes back hundreds of years. Since the 1930s, West Virginia University has been collecting artifacts from the industry. Now, the school's museum is displaying mine illumination technology in an exhibit called Defying the Darkness. Museum curator Danielle Petrak discussed some of the pieces ranging from the early 19th century with West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Glynis Board.

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The Royce J. and Caroline B. Watts Museum at West Virginia University is displaying a wide variety of mine illumination technology in an exhibit called Defying the Darkness.
Museum curator Danielle Petrak says the large amount of artifacts the school has been collecting since the 1930s deserved to be seen instead of just stored. So she dusted off some examples ranging from the early 19th century through the early 20th century and put them on display in a gallery inside the Mineral Science Building on WVUís campus.

There was a time when jars of fireflies and glowing crustaceans were used to illuminate mines. Before that, Animal fats were burned in saucersónot a popular technique on account of the thick smoke and rancid smell. When clean-burning candles were invented, miners drove metal spikes into the walls of the mine to hold the bright, clean-burning flames.

These innovations allowed for deeper mining. A fireman, cloaked in a wet robe, would lead the way waving a long torch in front of him to ignite any pockets of invisible gasóa job that has evolved into what is today known at the ìfire boss.î

Petrak says she went to mining lamp collectorsí shows when she was planning the exhibit. "I met this community of mine-lamp collectors," Petrak says, "this community that I never knew existedóthese guys trade and travel around the country to different mining-lamp shows, so I went to one in Johnstown PA."

Petrak says the collectors were great sources of information about the lamps: what was popular, what is rare.

"Iím a big fan of the Scotch Davies lamp, which is a 200 year-old lamp. It is very rare."

The Scotch Davy lamp was one of the ëFlame Safety Lampsí designed in the wake of a gas explosion in England in 1812 that left 92 miners dead. The lamps were designed with mesh wire around the flame. The glowing mesh would change color and cool the flame in the presence of various gasses. It saved thousands of lives.

There was also a cautionary tale built into the exhibit: According to facts displayed, the number of accident rates actually increased after the invention of the flame safety lamps. Under the guise that they made mines safer, companies would neglect other safety precautions. Companies and miners would dig deeper more readily, into harder-to-reach, more gaseous seams of coal. The safety-lamp precautions instilled false confidence and in doing so, they inadvertently made mines more hazardous.

The exhibit will remain open to the public thru July on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from 1 ñ 4 pm.