Light Your Trail With a Carbide Lamp

Eclipsed for a time by battery-powered and propane lanterns, the clean, economical, and efficient carbide lamp made a comeback among campers in the 1970s and 80s.

| September/October 1980

A generation or two ago, carbide headlamps were "standard equipment" for miners, spelunkers, and such night-ranging outdoor folks as coon hunters ... but the sturdy lights were gradually phased out by "convenient" modern battery or propane or white gas lanterns. Today, however, carbide is enjoying a comeback as more and more outdoor enthusiasts rediscover the advantages of this low-cost source of illumination. In fact, I revived a genuine old miner's lamp for a camping trip just last summer, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that—although the principle and design of the lamp may be a hundred years old—the device is not outdated.

How It Works

A carbide lamp operates by the simple process of producing flammable acetylene gas through the combination of water and calcium carbide. The contraption has two compartments: a lower chamber that typically houses 1/4 cup (almost 2 ounces) of crushed carbide, and an upper chamber that holds about the same amount of water. The liquid is released—by turning a control lever positioned on top of the lamp—and allowed to drip slowly onto the crystalline substance below.

As soon as the carbide gets wet, a chemical reaction takes place releasing acetylene gas. The vaporous end-product travels through a felt filter and then escapes, via a tiny gas jet in the center of the reflector pan. Finally, a wheel flint—located on one side of the metal disk—is used to provide a spark to ignite the volatile gas.

The intensity of light produced by a carbide lamp can be adjusted simply by moving the valve to increase or decrease the amount of water that hits the carbide "rocks." As you allow more water into the carbide chamber—and thus generate more acetylene—the illumination increases ... but only up to a point. If the lever is placed in the full "ON" position, the excessive quantity of gas that results may actually blow the lamp out, or create so much pressure that some of the gas is forced out through the air vent in the water cap. (If the latter happens, a slight bubbling sound will warn you that the control is set too high and valuable gas is escaping.)


The carbide lamp is a highly adaptable little instrument, and when you tote one along on a camping trip you'll discover its advantages. Once the lantern is fueled with equal portions of carbide and water, it can provide light in about five seconds ... but should be extinguished more slowly by simply turning the water lever to "OFF" and allowing all the accumulated gas to burn out.

Another beauty of the "miner's shiner" is its ability to meet varied light requirements. For instance, when you don't want to deal with the glare of a gasoline lantern, a carbide lamp can provide soft, unobtrusive light. It's even possible to adjust an acetylene-producing burner so that it puts out a mellow, almost candle-like glow. (In fact, if you carefully turn the water gauge down to its lowest level, a carbide lamp will burn steadily for up to 12 hours, providing a night light for youngsters and keeping away nocturnal animals.)

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