The unexpected high point of the latest sale held at Sheffield Auction Gallery was this rare survivor – one of two miner’s lamps entered for sale by a local vendor.
Offered together as a single lot, the other
lamp was a typical brass and iron Davy lamp but this example was an
altogether proposition. With the base stamped 11 and the internal
safety glass intact, it was one of those designed by George
Stephenson (1781-1848) which today exist in relatively small
numbers and are the most desirable of all miner's lamps.
Indeed, these Geordie' safety lamps tell a
remarkable story from the early career of the man who built the
world's first public inter-city railway line.
Despite his lack of scientific knowledge,
George Stephenson, engine-wright at the Killingworth Colliery in
Northumberland, created a lamp for use in flammable atmospheres by
trial and error. He presented his solution to the Philosophical and
Literary Society of Newcastle on December 5, 1815, sparking
accusations of plagiarism from the eminent Cornish scientist
Humphry Davy who was privately working on a similar design.
Davy went to his grave convinced the
'uneducated' Stephenson had stolen his design. It was not until
1833 that Stephenson was properly exonerated when a House of
Commons committee found that he had equal claim to having invented
the safety lamp.
Stephenson's design (employing a glass
cylinder to surround the flame rather than Davy's gauze) only
proved popular in his native north east. But the example that
appeared here at the Sheffield Auction on January 10 showed that
nowadays they are considerably more sought after among collectors
than the more commonly seen Davy lamps.
Although the printed estimate for the lot
was just £20-30, the auctioneer, holding a run of commission bids,
opened proceedings at £1200 before quickly fielding bids to £2600.
The successful bidder was in the saleroom.
The buyer's premium was 17.5%.
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