The latest exhibition at West Virginia University’s Royce J. and Caroline B. Watts Museum focuses on the history of mine illumination and the struggle to develop and adopt safe, sufficient mining lights.

Defying the Darkness: The Struggle for Safe and Sufficient Mine Illumination presents the complex and often contentious evolution of mine lighting technology.

“For thousands of years, miners used open-flame lights to illuminate their workspaces,” said Danielle Petrak, museum coordinator and curator. “But during the Industrial Revolution, these lights became great hazards, as mechanized mining techniques enabled miners to dig deeper into the earth where flammable gas accumulated.”

The combination of open flames and explosive gases was disastrous, leading to a series of deadly mine explosions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This increase in mining disasters prompted a call for safety reform and a push to design safer lamps for use in gaseous mines. The exhibition showcases the perspectives of mining companies, miners, governments and inventors who influenced the development and adoption of these new, safer lights.

Petrak noted that social reformers during the Progressive Era of the late 1800s and early 1900s drew attention to the need for improved underground lighting.

“They encountered resistance from both miners and mining companies, who preferred their traditional lighting methods and viewed government interference as restricting their ability to perform their jobs and make a profit,” said Petrak.

Defying the Darkness displays a wide variety of mine lighting implements, from early oil lamps and candles to enclosed-flame lamps, carbide lights and battery-powered cap lamps. The signature piece of the exhibition is the flame safety lamp, whose development and levels of success were a near-constant source of controversy within the 19th-century mining industry. Historical photographs and prints vividly capture the faces and activities of those who participated in the slow and uneven transition toward safer mine lighting. The exhibition will remain open through July 2012.

The Watts Museum is located in Room 125 of the Mineral Resources Building on WVU’s Evansdale Campus. The Museum is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 1-4 p.m. Admission is free, and parking is available at the WVU Coliseum. For more information or to arrange a tour, please contact the museum at (304) 293-4609 or

Housed in the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at WVU, the Royce J. and Caroline B. Watts Museum is dedicated to preserving and promoting the social, cultural and technological history of the coal, oil and natural gas industries of the state of West Virginia through the collection, preservation, research and exhibition of objects relevant to these industries.


dp 11/29/11

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CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, CEMR