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.
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surprised to find that—although the principle and design of the lamp may be a hundred years old—the device is not outdated.
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.)
On the other hand, the traditional lanterns—at the highest effective settings—make powerful general-purpose lights, which are equal to all but the best four-cell battery-powered units. When the water release is turned to near maximum, the carbide lamp's inch-long flame will throw out a strong, far-reaching beam ... and provide a wide circle of diffused light as well.
The fact that coon hunters used these lamps to find their prey hidden in the foliage of tall trees is testimony to the long range efficiency of such lanterns. And, as you can imagine, the wide circle of soft illumination that can be produced by a carbide lantern is ideal for use on night hikes. (Because most battery-operated lights, on the other hand, emit a single concentrated beam or "spot", it's necessary to swing a flashlight around a lot in order to light the width of a trail.)
In addition, carbide lamps are remarkably well suited to the special needs of backpackers. Since the devices are lightweight and compact, they're much easier to carry than bulky lanterns or battery packs. Furthermore, almost all carbide models come equipped with a wire bail or built-in handle (and usually with a fabric strap, as well). Such an adaptable arrangement allows the lamp to be handheld, attached to a belt or a hard hat, or hung from a tree branch at the campsite ... leaving the hiker's hands conveniently free for other activities.
Perhaps the most appealing feature of the miner's lamp, however, is its economic advantage over other lighting systems. Conventional lanterns simply can't hold a candle to the carbide's ultralow cost per hour.
You can find a two-pound can of carbide crystals (containing 16 two-ounce charges) at most camping and outdoor supply stores. Each fuel up of the lantern will keep it shining, at a high light level, for about three or four hours.
And—when the lamp begins to run out of fuel—you can even extend its "life" by a couple of crucial minutes, simply by shaking the device. The agitation will mix up the last bit of dry carbide with the moisture that has settled to the bottom of the lower compartment ... and produce a final burst of bright light.
A further word on fuel: It's easy to carry an extra supply of carbide crystals with you, since the two ounces needed for a single charge will fit perfectly into a 35mm film can. (You should also be sure, though, to carry several plastic Ziplock-type bags for disposal of the lime residue that will be left in the lamp's lower chamber after the carbide fuel is spent. Clean out the lamp ... seal the pasty white material in the bags ... Pack it out with you ... and dispose of it when you get home.)
You can find the brass lamps at many camping or sporting goods stores, or search online for "carbide lamps."
No matter what size or model you buy, you'll undoubtedly find the carbide lamp to be a good investment ... whether you're a hiker, camper, or caver. The ease with which you can carry and fuel the lantern makes it a convenient alternative to the costlier, bulkier sources of illumination most of us are familiar with!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Like any open-flamed device, a carbide lamp should NEVER be used in a confined space. In particular, using a lamp that consumes such a volatile fuel can be very dangerous in a tent.
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