Calcium Carbide lamps were once ubiquitous across America. Carbide gas lamps illuminated mines, provided lighting for homes, and served as headlights for cars and even bicycles. Calcium carbide itself is a remarkable substance. The cement-like material produces volatile acetylene gas when combined with water. Acetylene, while highly explosive, provides a clean, white, fantastically bright flame. Carbide gas lighting proved a strong adversary to the new electric light industry but ultimately lost to the light bulb. Though the carbide lamp has since faded into obscurity, it’s worth taking a look at this impressive old technology.
Calcium Carbide was discovered by accident in 1892 by Canadian inventor Thomas L. Willson. Willson created the world’s first electric arc furnace and attempted to use it to refine aluminum. During experimentation, he combined calcium and coal tar in his furnace, which yielded a light, chalky substance that produced acetylene gas when exposed to water. Willson patented the process and began marketing his revolutionary new material.
In 1892, coal gas was still the king of home lighting. Up until Willson’s discovery, acetylene was thought to be too expensive (and explosive) for commercial use. Undismayed, Willson demonstrated how acetylene burned over ten-times brighter than coal gas, with a lot less soot. By 1900, the carbide industry was booming, and inventors figured out innovative uses for the new substance.
That year, New York inventor Frederick Baldwin filed a patent for a self-contained calcium carbide lamp. Baldwin’s creation was a massive success, and many types were produced for a multitude of applications. Within a decade, at least half a dozen companies were producing a variant of the lamp.
HOW IT WORKS
The mechanisms at work inside the lamp were simple. A reservoir of water sat atop a chamber filled with calcium carbide flakes. When a needle valve was opened, water slowly dripped onto calcium carbide, producing a steady stream of acetylene gas. The gas moved up a small tube into a burner, which was lit by a strike of a flint wheel.
Self-contained carbide lamps were incredibly popular. Many people also chose to outfit their homes with this new technology, too. A home-based acetylene plant was a scaled-up version of the lamp, with a separate generator (usually located in the attic or basement) that fed gas to fixtures on the wall. Let’s take a look at the most common types of carbide lamp produced during the 20th century:
Carbide Miner’s Lamp
The carbide miner’s lamp is the most recognizable variant of the type. Before 1900, miners relied on handheld kerosene wick lanterns for light. Kerosene was dirty, dim, and produced noxious fumes; none of which made mining any easier.
The introduction of the carbide lamp was a significant upgrade. The new lamp was smaller, lighter, burned brighter, and was less apt to cause a fire. Now, miners could mount their lamp directly to a helmet, and enjoy better illumination with less danger and discomfort.
Between 1910 and 1920, many car makers outfitted their vehicles with acetylene carbide headlights. Typically brass, the headlights were fed by an acetylene generator located on the fender. This 1913 Ford Model T shows the typical configuration of a vehicle equipped with acetylene headlights. Note the retention of smaller kerosene side lamps below the windshield. Acetylene carbide automotive lights fell out of favor in the early 1920s. However, smaller applications for the technology persisted well into the 1940s. Some manufacturers produced carbide headlights for motorcycles and bicycles, which remained popular for the first half of the 20th century.
In addition to cars and bicycles, carbide lamps were a popular choice for locomotive headlights. They were brighter and cheaper to operate than kerosene lamps and provided reliable light without needing to replace a wick when it burnt down. Depending on the location of the gas generator, carbide locomotive headlights often didn’t need to be taken apart to be refueled.
The carbide lamp fell out of favor after the 1950s. Electrification came to America in the ’30s, and people preferred flameless home lighting for apparent reasons. Battery technology had improved immensely, and electric flashlights largely supplanted carbide lamps in mobile applications they used to dominate in previous decades.
The carbide lamp was superior to previous lighting technology in many ways. It provided better light and safer operation than anything that came before it. Unfortunately, calcium carbide is volatile when improperly stored, and flame-based light sources still caused fires. Electricity significantly reduced the hazards people expected from lighting and earned its place as the light source of the future.
Today, you can still purchase a new carbide lamp from a few manufacturers, and you can buy calcium carbide in small quantities for this purpose. Some cavers still prefer to explore by acetylene light, because it helps their eyes stay adjusted to the darkness. Others simply enjoy the nostalgia. Although this technology is now obsolete, it’s still fascinating to explore where it came from and how it changed everyday life.