Canary in a coal mine
Posted by ESC on November 28, 2001
In Reply to: Canary in a coal mine posted by JM Goethals on November 27, 2001
: I know the meaning of the phrase, "canary in a coal mine", but I'm looking for the origin -- specifically, first usage (date, by whom, where?). Does anyone have any insights?
You might try contacting a coal history Web site. I found some information on when the canaries were starting to be phased out. But not the first usage.
West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training -- Photos from West Virginia's Mining History (early 1900's) http://www.state.wv.us/mhst/histphoto.html There is a picture of a miner with a canary in a cage. Can anyone do a link?
From this information,
it sounds like canaries and other small animals were used until lamps like a "Davy's
lamp" were used beginning in the early 1900s:
(Chicago, Ill., Museum of Science and Industry site http://msichicago.org/exhibit/coal_mine/safe1.html ) "Beside the danger of coal dust, methane gas or CH4 - is almost always found accompanying a coal seam. As the coal is mined, the gas escapes into the mine. Methane is combustible between 5% and 15% of the air (2% - 5% when coal dust is present) and needs to be kept under 2%. Any more and it can burn with the slightest spark. Unfortunately, methane is odorless, tasteless, and colorless and can't be detected without technology.
The job of the Face Boss is to go out to the face at the beginning of each shift to check the methane levels with a methanometer. If the levels are OK below 1 or 2%, they initial the roof and come back and get the miners and start the day. If there is too much methane, well, that's why the foreman gets paid a little more.
Long before this technology became available, miners might take a canary or other small animal underground. A canary is much more sensitive and would show that methane levels were high by, well, dying. But canaries were so delicate that they weren't very reliable. So lamps like this Davy's lamp were used from the beginning to the later part of this century to detect the presence of methane by the methane feeding the little flame inside."
- Link to canary photo R. Berg 11/28/01