Arcane: Acetylene lamps

This was mentioned recently, by Stephen Fry, on the TV program QI, as soething that went out in the Victorian age.

However my Chemistry teacher, showed us a bicycle lamp that used this principle during the blackout of street lighting in WWII. (the modern dry cell battery wasn’t available yet)

Essentially, coke made from coal, was heated with quicklime to produce calcium carbide. (

The rocks of calcium carbide were placed in a chamber where water from a reservoir tankĀ  was allowed to pour through at a rate controlled by a tap. the resultant acetylene gas escaped through a small pipe set at the focal point of the lamp and lit with a match.

It’s worth remembering that the modern dry cell battery was not then available and in fact when I was young in the 1950’s. I recall carrying a rather unwieldy LeClanche cell down to the wireless shop to be replaced, for use in our transistor wireless. (A present from Uncle Harry, who’d jumped ship the USA).


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