When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
Heritage Community Foundation, Year of the Coalminer, Albertasource and Cultural Capital of Canada logos

Home     |      About     |      Contact Us     |      Sponsors     |      Sitemap     |      Search

spacer
spacer
Canaries
quicklinks
quicklinks

Clockwise lower left: Canaries, which were very responsive to methane gas, were kept in the small cage. if early miners saw the canary collapse they knew it was time to get out of there! The metal and glass cage with attached air tank made it possible to revive the little bird. The other objects at lower left were used to measure airflow and humidity. Other mining tools included pick, boring bit, shovel, Wolf Safety Lamp, dynamite box and copper powder flask for blasting. Inset: A lamp check, the brass token issued to each miner and carried by him into the mine.Canaries were used extensively in the 19th century, to warn miners that their lives were in danger. Upon removing coal from a seam, methane gas, or firedamp, often escapes into the air. Methane becomes combustible when its quantities comprise 5-15 percent of the air, but in the presence of coal dust, that number is reduced to 2-5 percent. It was necessary for miners to be weary of methane, because the slightest spark could ignite the gas, causing an explosion.

The dangerous nature of methane gas could not be overlooked. Colourless, odourless and undetectable to men without technology, miners had no choice but to devise a test for build-ups of methane gas. In an attempt to protect themselves, workers often kept caged canaries in the mines. More sensitive to gas than humans, the canaries would die if noxious gases were present in quantities beyond their ability to cope. Thus, miners knew that if they came upon a dead canary, it was time to head for open air.

By the time Alberta and British Columbia’s coal industry started, safety lamps had replaced canaries as a firedamp indicator. However, the bird still had its uses, and firebases continued to carry the canary to detect other harmful gases, such as afterdamp, a combination of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide that replaces oxygen in the air. Budgies faint when exposed to afterdamp, indicating the presence of gas before it reaches excessively dangerous levels. Once exposed to clean air, the budgies can be revived.
 

bottom spacer