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The miner describes all the lighting equipment used underground as “lights”. Light plays an important role in mining, as it can have a significant impact on a miner's safety and work performance. For the miner himself, the luminosity of a lamp and its behavior under extreme conditions are crucial.

Prehistoric glowing filings:

Burning wood is one of the oldest forms of artificial lighting. Wooden torches had the disadvantage of heavy smoke development and poor burning behavior. The first lamp used underground was the "light span".

Remains of more than 3000 years old luminous filings are known from the Hallstatt salt mine. The miners used thin, split sticks of fir wood, about a meter long before they were ignited. The luminous shavings were burned off individually. When a chip burned down, a new one had to be lit. The smoke development in the mine must have been enormous due to the many permanently burning light sticks. Imprints of teeth on some of the staffs that have been found suggest that they were sometimes held with the teeth. As a rule, it can be assumed that the shavings were held by one person, perhaps a child, while several other people went about their work.

The Bronze Age shavings were almost always made from resin-free fir wood. The luminous shavings are in contrast to the pine shavings from historical times, which were mostly made from very resinous woods such as spruce or pine.


Figure 1: Bronze Age salt mining with luminous chips, reconstruction, archive Salinen Austria


Figure 2: Bronze Age luminous filings, Hallstatt Museum, Bartos Archive

Haselgebirge areas in the Alpine salt mines such as Hallstatt and Hallein, which are interspersed with residues of prehistoric salt production, are what the miner calls “Heidengebirge” . The remains of prehistoric mining can be found in the Heidengebirge mountains, such as burned-out fluorescent shavings, broken stalks, bast cords, leftovers from food and human excrement.


Figure 3: Heidengebirge with burned-off luminescent shavings, Hallstatt salt mine, 2020, Kranabitl archive

pine shavings:

Wood with excessive resin inclusions is called "kienig". Kienholz arises from an external injury to the tree bark; the tree produces more resin to close the wound. The resin is transported to the wound and deposited there. After a certain time, the resin hardens, becomes crystalline, and the wood "kids". If you then fell the tree and cut or chop the trunk with all bark injuries into short pieces, which in turn are split lengthwise into thin, long chips, you get the "Kienspan". Pine chips had a flat - rectangular or square cross-section, which influenced the burning behavior. To improve the light yield, the chips were also impregnated with resin or wax.  

The pine shavings were also lit in the bare hand or in special holders in historical times. In some tunnels you can still find light niches with remains of clay into which the pine shavings could be stuck. Small lumps of clay were formed from lattes, into which the pine shavings were stuck during the work. From this developed clay holders with holes in which the pine shavings were inserted. However, these lighting fixtures, which were reusable in contrast to simple lumps of lattice, had the major disadvantage of being fragile and were gradually replaced by iron pine holders.


The "light chip" or the "light torch" was used in alpine salt mines until the late 19th century.

Figure 4: Medieval pine chip holder with pine chip, Wikipedia


Tallow Lamps:        


Luminous filings were replaced by the use of tallow in the form of candles or open lamps. Unschlitt was absolutely essential for mining for a long time. In order to guarantee extreme economy, the huts often had to pay for light and fuel themselves, since the mining operating costs for tallow were usually up to 10% and more. "Unschlitt" is created by gently frying the beef fat at no more than 60°C in an uncovered pot or pan. The water escaped and what was left was the solid tallow. This was an incredibly smelly affair.


Figure 5: Box rooms, candle lights, Kefer, 1836, Archive Salinen Austria


Figure 6: Manual drilling work, candlelight, Kefer, 1836, Archive Salinen Austria


Figure 7: Cladding work, supervisors with frog lamps and candle lanterns, Kefer, 1836, Archiv Salinen Austria

A wick was inserted into the tallow lamp and pinched on one side. Then heated tallow was poured. Furthermore, a spatula-shaped tool was attached to a leather strap, which was used to pull the wick further.


Figure 8: Clay lamp with tallow and wick, Wikipedia


Figure 9: Chest runner with tallow frog, Schwazer Bergbuch, 1554, Internet

The lamps operated with tallow gave a pale light and could only slightly illuminate the tunnels and mining sites with a small, yellowish flame. The fact that this fuel was able to prevail over oil for centuries was certainly due to its gentle way of burning and the development of little or almost no sooty smoke. Its solid, wax-like consistency prevented careless spilling of this valuable fuel, which was a great advantage when using the open-topped clay lamps that were common at the time.

The first lamp constructions, which developed from Greek and Roman models, were simple bowls made of stone or clay for burning fat.


Figure 10: Roman clay lamp, Wikipedia

The shape of this lamp, which is open at the top, is reminiscent of a triangular boat with strongly rounded corners. The burner snout curves into the base and at the rear at the opposite, wide end of the crucible there is a tubular, cylindrical grip hole, big enough for a finger so that it could be carried stably. The average size of this lamp was 11.5 by 8 by 2.5 cm.

According to old records, the shift lasted as long as a lamp fully operated with tallow could burn, ie 7 to 8 hours depending on the strength of the wick.

These shapely chandeliers made of clay had the disadvantage of breaking relatively quickly, but were probably inexpensive to produce. When burning, the clay lamp warmed up only slightly and only melted the waxy consistency of the tallow in the vicinity of the wick, making it impossible for the tallow to spill out of the lamp.  

From the 18th century onwards, a 4 mm thick, 8 x 10 cm large, open-topped frog lamp made of sheet iron or cast iron was used in many mining areas. The name may have been derived from the distantly similar shape of a seated frog. The advantage of this lamp was its great robustness and its indestructibility due to its simple, solid construction.

It was burned with tallow or oil, though if the lamp was moved the oil could be spilled. If you burned with tallow, this lamp warmed up less quickly than a thin-walled tin lamp due to the thick walls, but after a while it got so warm that the tallow liquefied too much and could also easily be spilled if you weren't careful.


Figure 11: Open tallow frog, description of manipulation 1807 – 1815, Archive Salinen Austria


Figure 12: Brine measuring trough, miner with tallow frog, Kefer, 1836, Archiv Salinen Austria


Illustration 13 : Open tallow frog, around 1880, Austria, from Kieser "Mining Lamps"

The tallow was even used as food in poor families. What the worker saved from the allowance he brought home. Pieces of bread thrown into the liquefied tallow served to attract the unpleasant smell.

The importance of tallow is shown in the Reformation Dragonfly from 1563. In it, the weekly amount of tallow allocated to the miner and miner, the iron workers, the rustlers, the servants, etc. is already specified for the Hallstatt salt mines. The miners received the tallow from the office free of charge, up to 1832 as an annual flat rate as before, namely Gedinghauer and Schopfknappen 66 pounds (37 kg), the other miners 33 to 39 pounds (18.5 - 21.2 kg).

In addition to the tallow lamps, the oil lamps increasingly came to the fore in the 18th century. However, tallow was used as a fuel for the pit lamps in the Alpine salt mines well into the 19th century.


oil lamps:

At the end of the 18th century there were first attempts to introduce oil lamps in the Salzbergen, which were fed with rapeseed oil ("Rüböl"). They were originally made of sheet iron (“tin cover”) or cast iron (“caster”), later also made of brass (“official frog” or “steeger’s lamp”) for the supervisory staff. The use of brass for this professional group was not only a status symbol but was also a necessity when surveying with a compass.

The typical Austrian design of the frog-shaped miner's lamps for oil fires was the "Pirringer Frog". A shallow, closed container held the rubbing oil. A twisted flax wick was inserted in the front of the lid, which was held in place with a clamp secured by a screw so that it could be easily and quickly adjusted. At the back was a handle to which a hook or chain was attached for hanging. In some versions, the handle ended at the front in the form of a small mirror to increase the luminosity of the small oil flame.


 Figure 14: Closed oil lamp, Pirringer, around 1890, Austria, from Kieser "Mining Lamps"

 Figure 15: Closed oil lamp, brass riser lamp, around 1890, Germany, Internet


Figure 16: Ludovika - tunnel, miners with oil frog, around 1910, Bartos archive


In the middle of the 18th century, efforts to better protect oil and candle lights from weather drafts or dripping water led to the introduction of screens, tin-lined wooden boxes to hold a light. These stable cases were closed on five sides. The front was open and could be closed by a door. If the side parts or the back were transparent, this form of lighting was called a lantern. However, because of their fragility, lanterns have not found as widespread use as the shades.

In addition to candles, light sources for the screens were also oil or later kerosene lamps, which were referred to as cuckoos. The cuckoo or the candle could be carried in the visor during the trip and could be removed on the spot and placed on a lump of lettuce to serve individual needs according to the illumination of the workplace.

The use of screens in the Dürrnberg salt mine was of great importance. Hallein screens were in use there until the end of the 19th century.


Figure 17: Halleiner aperture, around 1850, from "Mining - Everyday Life and Identity"


Figure 18: Halleiner aperture, around 1850, Nussbaumer Archive

carbide lamps:

However, it only got really bright underground with the carbide lamp.

Calcium carbide was first produced in the laboratory by Robert Hare in 1836 by heating calcium and carbon to 1000°C. We owe Friedrich Wöhler the discovery in 1862 that combustible acetylene gas can be produced from calcium carbide and water. In his experiments, he burned the gas escaping from a narrow nozzle with a bright flame. Around 30 years later, the patent for the production of calcium carbide from lime and coal in the electric arc furnace in the USA paved the way for large-scale production.


Figure 19: Calcium Carbide, Internet


Figure 20: Tapping of calcium carbide from the electric arc furnace, from "Advertising brochure - Donau Chemie AG"


From around 1895, carbide lamps were widely used in firedamp-free mines and quickly replaced the oil or candle lights that had been used until then. Compared to traditional lamps, the advantages of carbide lamps were that they were about ten times brighter. The carbide lamps were more reliable underground because they did not go out as quickly in the wind or under dripping water.  

The working principle of the carbide lamp was as follows. The upper part of the lamp consisted of the water tank and the lower part consisted of the carbide container. Water from the water tank, regulated by a valve with a screw, dripped onto the underlying carbide, releasing flammable acetylene gas. The gas reached the "burner" through an opening ("burner pipe"), where it could be ignited at a ceramic nozzle with fine holes and burned with a bright flame.

Figure 21: Carbide lamp, principle of operation, Internet

For safety reasons, the water and carbide containers were firmly connected to each other with a tensioning bracket construction. In addition, a rubber seal was inserted. The tin carbide cover was placed on the carbide filling, which was intended to hold down the carbide that swelled up during the reaction. For this reason, the carbide container was only allowed to be half filled with carbide when it was commissioned.   

As a further development, a circular, hollow-shell reflector made of polished metal (brass) was installed behind the burner nozzle in later times, which again made a significant contribution to improving the light output. The light phenomenon caused by the reflector always contained a special statement. Every miner knew how to interpret a yellow light underground as officials, whereas the simple miner wore a white light. Brass reflectors that gave yellow light were reserved for supervisory staff, while working staff wore only a sheet metal or aluminum reflector.

A carbide lamp filling was enough for a good 8 hours of operation. After each use, the carbide sludge had to be removed from the bottom pot and the lamp cleaned well. Because of the great risk of explosion from acetylene gas, separate "lamp rooms" were set up away from the miners' houses for handling carbide for safety reasons.


Figure 22: Carbide lamp, around 1950, Germany, from Kieser "Minig Lamps"


Figure 23: Carbide lamp, brass riser lamp, around 1920, Germany, from Kieser "Mining Lamps"

Due to the color of the flame, carbide lamps also showed the oxygen content of the mine air ("weather"). A bright, white flame was a sign of sufficient oxygen ("fresh weather"), a small, orange, sooty flame was an indication of high carbon dioxide levels and oxygen deficiency ("dull weather").

Carbide lamps were used in the alpine salt mountains until the 1980s.


Figure 24: Reconstruction work, miner with carbide lamp, around 1930, Archiv Salinen Austria


Figure 25: Conveyor with carbide lamp, around 1930, ÖNB archive

Electric miner's lamps:

The first electric miner's lamps were developed in France as early as 1860. However, the high price and weight of these lamps limited their distribution. Only with the development of powerful and significantly lighter lead-acid batteries and nickel-cadmium batteries at the beginning of the 20th century could the electric light, first in the form of hand lamps and later also as head lamps, begin its triumphant advance.

Electric headlamps were already in use in the USA in the 1920s. They allowed the hands to be used freely when driving and working. Another advantage was the helmet attachment, which means that the light always fell in the wearer's line of sight.

The first electric hand lamps were purchased in the Bad Ischl salt mine in early 1945 as part of the storage of art objects. Because of the open flames of the carbide lamps, there was a great risk of fire in the storage rooms, especially because of the packaging material. This danger could be eliminated by using electric hand lamps.


Figure 26: Electric hand lamp, Bad Ischl salt mine, 1945, Arthofer Collection

Portable electric miner's lamps initially came in many different forms. The "team lamp" had the highest luminosity and could be used as a simple hand lamp. Individual miners, such as supervisors, used "climber lamps", which were significantly lighter than team lamps. "Head lamps" were used whenever hands had to be free. The battery was attached to the belt, a flexible cable led to the light bulb on the head piece of the lamp, which could be pushed into a fastening rail on the helmet. From the 1970s, headlamps increasingly began to replace carbide lamps.


Figure 27: Electric head lamp with lead-acid battery, around 1960, Germany, from Kieser “Mining Lamps!


Figure 28: Wireless LED lamp, KLT GmbH - Hagen, Germany

Today, lamps are mostly used in which the small, powerful nickel-ion battery is built into the head piece. This eliminates the need for cable connections that get in the way of work. Particularly important mine locations, such as places of work, workshops or lounges, are illuminated with stationary lighting fixtures connected to the power grid.

Sources used:

Carl Schraml "The Upper Austrian salt works from the beginning of the 16th to the middle of the 18th century", Vienna 1932

Carl Schraml "The Upper Austrian Salt Works from 1750 to the time after the French Wars", Vienna 1934

Carl Schraml "The Upper Austrian Salt Works from 1818 to the end of the Salt Office in 1850", Vienna 1936

Robert Stibich "Mine Hunt and Knappenross", Brixlegg, 2011

Friedrich Morton "Ischl's Salt Blessing", in "Bad Ischl - Past and Present", Bad Ischl

Werner Börkel and Horst Woeckner "Des Bergmanns Geglüh", fourth volume, Essen 1983

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