Carbide lights? Anyone remember those?

Discussion in 'Backpacking' started by charlesmc2, Sep 23, 2017.

  1. charlesmc2

    charlesmc2 Scout

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    In about 1960 armadillos staged a mass invasion of northeast Texas. I was just a kid, but I had never seen an armadillo and I remember the adults reaction to their takeover. They got to be a nuisance and we tried to kill as many as we could. By '65 or so I was old enough to take off after them. Hunted at night. My best friend and I somehow learned about carbide lights and bought ourselves carbide lights at the army surplus store.

    If you've never seen one they were made of brass with a large polished metal reflector about 4 inches in diameter. There were two vessels, one for water on top and one below, sealed and gasketed to hold pressure. Water from the top tank dripped down onto the "rocks" below. The rocks were calcium carbide (hence the name of the light). Water caused the carbide to release acetylene gas which went out through a tiny nozzle and you lit it by means of a striker like on Zippo lighters. Made a good bright light and were cheaper to operate than a battery powered flashlight. This was WAY before LED flashlights!

    Lots of good memories, hunting with my friend and my dog. As I recall, he had more fun even than we did. A few years went by and girlfriends replaced the Saturday night hunts. We double dated occasionally and he was best man in our wedding and I in his.
     
  2. 1066vik

    1066vik Guide

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    cheapcarbide.com sells it pretty cheap by the pound.
     
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  3. Winterhorse

    Winterhorse Supporter Supporter

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    Also remember the carbide cannons. Those things would go off like an M80:)
     
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  4. charlesmc2

    charlesmc2 Scout

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    Well, thanks! I guess I'm not so old after all. (I am.)
     
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  5. JohnP

    JohnP No more half measures Supporter Bushcraft Friend

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    Yep. I remember them. I picked one up, along with a can of calcium carbide, for $4.00 total, from a estate sale. Couldn't pass it up.

    image.jpeg

    image.jpeg

    JohnP
     
  6. DavidJAFO

    DavidJAFO Supporter Supporter

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    hello,
    Oh yeah I recall a tin of the stuff on the coal shed shelf as a lad & we used to spit on it & watch it sizzle. :D I was educated on how to use it by my grandmother instead of boyish pranks (spit n' sizzle) & later on a Military training course used as an incendiary along similar lines, small piece wrapped up water tight in the FSK tin, opened the wrap, place inside the tinder bundle, spit & ignite the fumes. ;)
    Regards
    David
     
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  7. central joe

    central joe Supporter Supporter Bushcraft Friend

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    Not only do I remember them, I remember using one some night fishing with my Papa. joe
     
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  8. River Boy

    River Boy Scout

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    Yep. Use to use them for catfishing at night. Leave it run and point it away from the water then use it to bait a hook, light a smoke etc. I was convinced at the time it helped keep away mosquitos. I've still got a can of carbide around here but can't find anyone that still sells the lamps. E Bay has them but they are high.
     
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  9. Sandcut

    Sandcut Sed ego sum homo indomitus Vendor

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    I used them a couple of times as a kid with my buddy when his dad took us coon hunting. Always thought they were neat.
     
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  10. FIELDCRAFTLTC

    FIELDCRAFTLTC Supporter Supporter Bushclass I

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    Yep, sure do. In 1976, 77, and 78 my best friend Mike and I got into spelunking and we used carbide lamps in our explorations. We were part of a program called Project Adventure in high school, so we took the meaning literally!!!
     
  11. Medic17

    Medic17 Supporter Supporter Bushclass I

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    Yup, Got one. Its a Petzl, mounted to a helmet.
     
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  12. kreate

    kreate Guide

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    I used to go caving with a guy who used a carbide head lamp. It was a tad finicky and would sometimes flare up like an out of control tiki torch but man was it bright! On winter trips we would hustle around it for heat. The smell of one always conjures up fond memories.
     
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  13. charlesmc2

    charlesmc2 Scout

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    I was in high school about 50 years ago. I found an old container of carbide up on the chemical shelf. Decided to demonstrate how a carbide lamp worked. I heated up some glass tubing and bent it into an "L" then heated a section and pulled it to a thin nozzle of sorts and cut it by scratching it with a triangle file and breaking it. Took a two hole stopper and ran the tubing down thru that and next to it ran a thistle tube (I think that's what we called it--a glass funnel of sorts) down into the flask. Carbide into flask, water into thistle tube and dripping onto the carbide.

    Did I mention the carbide was powdery and smelled of acetylene? It didn't occur to me that the carbide had absorbed water from the air and was pretty much spent. When I used the sparker to light the acetylene KABOOM! I had made a little acetylene, but not enough to flush out the air. Explosive mixture. The stopper and glassware broke on the ceiling on its way up, somewhat short of orbital velocity. Miraculously, the flask was intact. I was not wearing goggles. The Good Lord was looking out for me that day. Nothing can take the place of a mother's prayers.

    Thinking back, I am amazed at how much freedom we were allowed to mess around in the chem lab. It definitely was a different era. I was about 17 when I pulled this stunt. But there were many men alive then in their late 30's and early 40's who had joined up to fight WWII when they were about that age. [Many others likewise in Korea and Viet Nam.]

    What are a few risks in a chem lab?
     
  14. Danmanrn

    Danmanrn Tracker

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    Any one know a dealer of modern, new manufactured, carbide lamps?
    Thanks!
    Dan
     
  15. TNCanoer

    TNCanoer Scout

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    I coon hunted with my dads carbide light until I was 16 and then bought a wheat light. Got my butt paddled in high school for dropping carbide in all of the water fountains early one morning. By noon the whole school smelled like rotten eggs :)
     
  16. Crusher0032

    Crusher0032 Appalachian Arthfael Supporter

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    Lehmans has them, but reviews are shaky:
    https://www.lehmans.com/product/carbide-cap-lamp-with-flint-striker/
    Also here:
    https://www.karstsports.com/minex-miners-carbide-lamp/

    Having grown up in coal country where they were extremely popular, I can tell you that these lights work very well, but I'd be surprised if they anything made now was as good as the old ones. Finding a good older one that a collector is willing to let go of might be tough though. Years ago you could find them here at any flea market and many yard sales.

    When I was a kid, I think I just assumed everybody had one of these on their shelf full of collectibles, along with some kind of special limited edition Pepsi/RC/Coke/beer can, a coal sculpture, a green glass insulator from a power pole, and a blue Mason jar. Maybe a commemorative plate or two. :)
     
  17. werewolf won

    werewolf won TANSTAAFL Supporter Bushcraft Friend

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    I used one to blacken my pistol sights.
     
  18. BalsamFur

    BalsamFur Not a duck Supporter

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    I did quite a bit of caving in the early '90s. At that time, carbide lamps were still the most dependable long-duration light source you could find. It would be another ten years before white LEDs made them obsolete. We'd carry spare carbide in baby bottles. I found mine in an army surplus store. The owner didn't know what it was and gave it to me for five bucks. You could use the flame to "smudge" direction markers on branching passages, to avoid getting lost. The real fun was when a seal would fail on a helmet mounted lamp and shoot flames at your face.
    Good times.
     
  19. Desert Drifter

    Desert Drifter Supporter Supporter

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    I've been collecting and using carbide miners lamps and carbide canons. A tip for those whose want one. Don't overfill the carbide can on the lamp. Here is what happens.

    When you put too much carbide in the can and too much water flow the carbide will foam up like a freshly made root beer float. This foam will rise up to the bottom of the top and plug up the felt filter and could even plug it causing the acetylene gas to seep past the gasket or blow the lamp tip out causing a fire. Be sure to completely clean the residue in the carbide can. It gets as hard as concrete.

    You can find them at antique stores. If you find one that has residue hardened in the bottom soak the parts in vinegar to clean them. The most critical system in selecting a used one is the water valve. It needs to regulate the water dripping into the carbide. What happens when to much water is introduced the carbide and you have a run-a-way flame the user forces the water off trying to stop the fire and damages the ball water seat and repairing it is very hard if not next to impossible to repair. Check for cracks in the carbide cup and the skirt around the top. These lamps are made from thin brass. Water or residue left in them during freezing conditions will cause the to crack and slip. Also over tightening the top to the can will cause the brass to spit. They can be repaired by soldering. Gaskets and replaceable tips can be found. Tips can be soaked in vinegar and cleaned with a thin copper wire. Miners used a small pin head dab of toothpaste around the tips base before reseating it. This would keep it from blowing or falling out.

    When lighting it using the flint lighter. Start the gentle water flow and acetylene generation. When you smell acetylene... cup your hand over the front of the reflector for a second to capture acetylene then let a quick flick of the heel of your palm to rotate the flint and igniting your lamp. It will make a pop when you light it. When a crew of miners entered the mine there were always a chorus of pops going off off.

    They're fun, reliable and good historic hobby for collectors.

    Here is an older link about carbide lamps.

    https://bushcraftusa.com/forum/threads/why-not-carbide-miners-lights-and-lanterns.147368/

    'drif
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2017
  20. will62

    will62 Guide

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    Used one several times for exploring caves and for coon hunting as a kid.
     
  21. Fly Rod

    Fly Rod Tracker

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    Hey Crusher : I have spent many night coon hunting and Fox chasing in WV with my dad. Still have his lamp. Works like a new one. He took the care of it like it was the only light he had. Iknow it is at least 85 years old.
     
  22. boisdarc

    boisdarc Scout

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    JohnP, that is a good looking lamp. My mother's ex had been a coal miner for over 40 years and had many old carbide lamps that resemble the one in your pic.
     
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  23. marbleman

    marbleman Supporter Supporter

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    I was only around a few when I was young, and was fascinated by the process. A few years ago, I thought that a good one would be good for indefinite storage, for power outages. I looked around a little, saw some ratty ones in a flea market, but didn't want a repair/restoration project.
     
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  24. charlesmc2

    charlesmc2 Scout

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    If I understand correctly (and remember correctly) folks used gas or butane/propane lights indoors that were permanently mounted that worked on the same principle--a stream of flammable gas with light directed by a reflector. That would be convenient enough but a worrisome fire hazard.
     
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  25. oldpinecricker

    oldpinecricker Guide

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    As many of you pointed out those style of lamps were the standard in the mining industry for a long time. I grew up in an famous mining district and remember old pics of guys using these type of laterns. By the time I worked underground in any mine they were long gone replaced by huge rechargeable battery apparatus on ones belt.
     
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  26. Bobsdock

    Bobsdock Still going Supporter

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    I still cave with an old carbide light great light and is fully field repairable !
     
  27. Jim L.

    Jim L. Guide

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    My dad told many a story about carbide cystals being a great component of childhood mischief. One story was how he would put a cardboard tube of the stuff into a 30 gal. oil drum. The drum would be dug into a hole near a creek that needed a swimming hole.

    The cardboad tube was dropped into the drum that had some water already in it, the gas would slowly buildup after sealing the drum and then diesel off to a satisfactory explosion, making the new swimming hole.
     
  28. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    I was an avid spelunker during college in the '60s. Spent many a day underground, being kept alive by a carbide lamp. We carried carbide in baby bottles. Those things are tough and waterproof. You learn to change carbide in the dark and try to avoid 'souping' which happens when you try to run a charge of carbide too long. If you change carbide at just the right point, it is a powder and just dumps out easily. If you run too long, you 'soup', and the stuff is like wet clay or runny soup. What a mess. Then you have to charge the lamp with a wet tank. Grrr... Anyway, I was a miner my whole life and stayed interested in the lamps. Here are a few of mine. The pic on the shelf is my favorite one of my lady, enjoy. I do...

    [​IMG]

    The top right lamp is a flame safety lamp. It has a metal gauze around the upper part, and heavy glass around the flame. It runs on lighter fluid essentially. Made for gassy coal mines.
     
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  29. charlesmc2

    charlesmc2 Scout

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    Wow! Nice collection of lamps!
     
  30. Boondocks70

    Boondocks70 Scout

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    Does anyone know where I can currently get parts for a Justrite head lamp?? Namely the flame tip (orifice) and a felt holder clip (the disk with the two springy fingers). I am rebuilding two lamps to working and one is missing those pieces. All of the previously mentioned suppliers, both here and elsewhere on the net have either run out or closed up shop.
    Justrite, Premier, and Autolite parts could all be made to work, so not picky at all on brand.
    Fleabay auctions have been nothing but frustration in this search especially with "sniper bids" at the last second. Would prefer a buy it outright option if one is available. Or if anyone knows a workable substitute for the flame tip, I would be grateful!
    Thanks in advance!!
     
  31. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    You pretty much need the tip, it has a ceramic 'burner' and would be difficult to duplicate in something that would actually work.
    The felt holder isn't really necessary, but you could make a simple 'hairpin' out of a hairpin or something similar. Just make it small enough to fit inside the top of the base threads so it doesn't jam.
    I haven't found my spare parts container yet. If I do and if there is a tip in it, I could send you one. One of my lamps is set up with a rubber tube adapter instead of reflector and tip. It goes to my carbide cannon... if I ever find that.
     
  32. Boondocks70

    Boondocks70 Scout

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    NevadaBlue, yup.... tips will be hard to replicate! I did cut a felt holder from a mason jar lid pretty close match to original but a bit thinner. Was also thinking along the bobby-pin idea as well. The one lamp has no real sentiment, so just want it "working", the other was my Grandfather's on my Dad's side (died when Dad was 13) so I'd like to get it back to "original".
    There is a "Antique Mining Equipment" show coming up in April at Carter Caves, Kentucky I may try to hit and see what I can find. More than a few years ago, hardware stores around these parts still had boxes of the repair kits out on the shelves...... I need to find the oldest guy in the store to find out where they have them hidden now! I'm sure somewhere a hardware store (real one, not Lowes) has some squirreled away.
    Mining show is April 7, 2018 by the way for anyone interested!
     
  33. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    Good chance they may still have parts at that store. The little hardware store in the Ozarks where I lived years ago, sold lamps, carbide and dynamite, just in case you needed it.
     
  34. charlesmc2

    charlesmc2 Scout

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    I once took some glass tubing, heated it over a propane kitchen burner and drew out the tubing to make a narrow part. Scratched the skinny part and broke it. Rolled some electrical tape around the fat end and jammed it in to the orifice holder. Just a friction fit, but it worked. That was 50 years ago, give or take. We were pretty good at finding work arounds.

    Fortunately, I found my tip and didn't have to live with the homemade tip but one use.

    This was back in the day. Duct tape is just the modern equivalent of baling wire. Ha!
     
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  35. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    The tip gets quite hot. One of the problems with the plastic Justrite lamp was that the metal insert in the plastic body would fall out. The heat from the flame would melt the plastic around the insert. I only bought my plastic one to illustrate the low point of the lamp design. It was the last one they made. Sad...
    I checked all of my lamps for spares. Sometimes I put spare parts in the bottom of them. Only found a wing nut. Noticed I am missing several tips also. But, if your search fails, let me know. I could take the tip out of the plastic lamp. I will never burn it anyway. Grandpa's lamp deserves to be complete.

    A quick search turns up several vendors. Look for carbide lamp tip. Even one that won't fit will be better than nothing. You can make it fit. Looks like Bob & Bob are still in business. Maybe send them a note.

    http://www.4bobandbob.com/

    Some good info here:

    http://caves.org/member/mfraley/spare.htm
     
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2017
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  36. Boondocks70

    Boondocks70 Scout

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    I appreciate the offer, NevadaBlue, but will decline at this time. That is probably one of the few (intact) plastic Justrites still around! I only began my search in earnest a few days ago. I live in the heart of coal country and these things used to be around here literally in the thousands. Gotta be some old ones or parts to be had here somewhere.
    Bob and Bob's looks to have gone out of business, according to a WV caving group post. Bob was in nursing home after battling cancer. His Brother Bill ran the shop until early this last spring. (Inner Mtn. liquidated their remaining stock of climbing gear for them. Don't know on lamp parts.)
    I will try to hit the hardware/antique stores around here then flea markets when the weather warms up again. May also fire off an email to Bob and Bob just to see if I get any answer. If I find any, how many do you need for your collection? Any other parts needed?
     
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  37. DKR

    DKR Scout

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    Yup - used one caving in SoNv. Saw a lot in Korea at the outdoor cafes
     
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  38. Crowe

    Crowe Tracker

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    Me too. Used to blacken open weapon sights for competition shooting in the military
     
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  39. Fat Old Man

    Fat Old Man Perpetual Student Supporter

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    Absolutely fascinating! I've not had any experience with carbide lamps, but the outpouring of fond memories in this thread is amazing! Thanks to all who've participated.
     
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  40. thereandbackagain

    thereandbackagain Scout

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    I had to play Robert Earl Keene's Armadillo song after reading this thread
     
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  41. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    Thanks Boondock, but I will just enjoy the collection as it is. None of them will be fired in my lifetime... well, maybe when the carbide turns up I will fire one of them for my grandson.
    Good luck on the search.
     
  42. Bobsdock

    Bobsdock Still going Supporter

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    A pair of auto lite
     
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  43. Bobsdock

    Bobsdock Still going Supporter

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  44. Cascadian

    Cascadian Scout

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    Your lady is top-shelf.
     
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  45. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    Yes, she is. :)

    Here is a closer pic of a few lamps. The one on the left in the front row sports a brass reflector from an old car headlight or something. It was useful for surveying with a compass since it has very little steel in it. I found the reflector in a junk shop and fitted it to the lamp.

    The one on the right is wearing a bracket that I found buried in the dirt in an old mining district (which was our yard at the time!). It is rusty, as found. It fit the lamp perfectly still. It wraps around the lamp and has a pointed rod sticking out the other side. It would have been stuck in the wall to provide light for the miner, so he didn't have to wear the lamp or hold it.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    You can also see different types of reflector in these pics. Front right has a deep reflector, center front has a standard reflector. Of course, the big hand lamps came with a monster deep reflector and could be used with the silly little reflector the center rear one has.
     
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  46. LongAgoLEO

    LongAgoLEO Guide

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    Did a fair bit of spelunking in the early 70's and never came across these lamps. But, I do recall as a wee lad, riding along to drop my father off at the Campbell Soup Mushroom Farms. He'd disappear into one of the (many) Quonset huts and reappear wearing a hardhat with one of these lamps affixed - already lit. I had to stand on the front seat to see out the window and we'd exchange a snappy salute to one another. Then he'd disappear into the dark wearing that "cool hat." I was totally intrigued by that light on his head.
     
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  47. Yknpdlr

    Yknpdlr Scout

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  48. Ryan Alexander

    Ryan Alexander Scout

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    That's neat, i always thought they used some sort of candle lamps back in the day. See? you learn something new every day!
     
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  49. NevadaBlue

    NevadaBlue —- Roughian #7 -— --- Graybeard -— Supporter Bushcraft Friend Bushclass I

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    They did use candles too. There are special 'tools' that the candle would go in and then it would be stuck in the wall of the mine. They are similar to the 'sticker' that one of the lamps above is wearing.
     
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  50. Yknpdlr

    Yknpdlr Scout

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    I bought a flame safety lamp in Germany a year ago at a flea market. It is in excellent shape and works well. This one burns Coleman fuel. Interestingly, to extinguish the flame, you hold it and let it drop suddenly and catch it.
    We caved the muddy NY caves in wet suits with vertical climbing gear and stayed underground or 24 hours or more while pushing new passages to explore. Have to watch where the carbide flame front was pointing while on the rope, just inches from your face! In Carlsbad we descended to the then lowest known level of the cave, to a pond under puffy formations called "Lake of the Clouds".
     
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