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  • Writer's pictureAdam Christiansen

Carbide: The Fuel of Inspiration

Updated: Nov 22, 2019

The thing that gives context to our environment. The thing that allows the world to progress even after the day is done. The thing that gives us direction after the sun has bid our world goodnight. Light! I recently heard on the radio (yes, young people still listen) that before the light bulb was mass produced in America, most people got an average of ten hours of sleep a night. I don't know about you, but that would do wonders for, well, most aspects of my life.

Calcium Carbide ('carbide' for short) is a solid chemical compound, that, when comes in contact with water creates a flammable acetylene gas. This was advantageous to miners in the mid-19th century who in the early parts of the century and all of the previous one, had relied on the flame of a candle to light their work. The operation of carbide lamps (carbide candles, smokers) was more efficient than the candle. It also created more byproduct than the smoke of a burning wick. A continuous stream of soot could easily be seen rising from the tip of the acetylene flame. Most miners were well-practiced enough though in the inhalation of hazardous chemicals that they didn't mind. The benefits of the lamps, providing a robust and lasting flame far outweighed any perceived health risks at the time. Even though the candle was no longer widely used in the mines, the adage of its creation, "Is the game worth the candle?" never left the mines. Gold was always a gamble, even for the experienced and schooled mining engineer.

The carbide lamp (pictured) is the tool of inspiration for this project, the inspiration itself coming from the miners on whose heads the flame of the lamps burned bright. The lamp operates on two simple principles. First, the reaction of water and calcium carbide that creates the fuel. Second, the gravity that pulls the water (controlled by a drip-valve) from the top reservoir compartment into the chamber below which houses the carbide. Then, as the gas leaves the cylinder through a pinhole in the front face, it is ignited by a flint and steel fixed to the inside of the dish. A "charge" of carbide typically lasted four hours and was accompanied by a second charge (usually stored in a small tin in a miner's back pocket) to keep the lamp burning throughout the eight-hour shifts, common at mines in the district.

These lamps were realistically the only tool one could use to write any message or other scribblings on the cold, damp, rock surfaces of a mine tunnel. The sharpie had not yet been invented and unlike the permanent marker, carbide soot is, unfortunately, subject to fading over time. Between porous mountains and vandals, several of these historic markings in the mines have been partly or completely erased into history along with their creators...I want to preserve the ones that are left. We are fortunate. Our history here in Alaska is relatively young compared to the rest of the nation. History of the heyday in Hatcher Pass is only three generations removed. This history we can reach. If there is a time to preserve it, it is now!

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