Michael Faraday is best remembered as a scientist. But during his time, he was also a scientific investigator—looking into the origins of explosions and accidents. After one great tragedy he filed a safety report that’s still remembered today, but made no impression at the time.
On September 28th, 1844 work began at the coal mine in Haswell County. The mine had been unoccupied, except for unskilled scab workers, for quite some time before that. The actual skilled workers had gone on an ultimatedly unsuccessful strike, and work had just resumed. That morning, the miners were doing particularly dangerous work, collapsing a used-up seam. This was necessary both for overall stability and to make sure explosive gas didn’t collect along the top of unused rooms and cause an explosion.
Very few people know exactly what happened that day. There were over a hundred people working in the mine, and only four survived the explosion. The explosion itself was so huge that it left a poisonous, oxygen-free miasma throughout the mine, so that no one could recover the bodies for days. This was a disaster so huge that the government had to get involved, and they sent Michael Faraday to lead a team of investigators.
Ultimately, the team found that the explosion was a tragic accident. However, they also found the coal mine to be an appalling pit full of dangers. Open flames sat next to barrels—barrels!—full of gunpowder. The collapse of any open space, even under ideal conditions, meant there was a risk of two stones striking a spark. Ideal conditions were very hard to come by, considering the mines were full of hovering coal dust.
Faraday suggested to the government that it would be a good idea to have some kind of ventilation system to clear away the flammable dust and fumes. Coal companies naturally refused—the costs would be too high, they said. Costs won out. It would be about seventy-five years before safety conditions were officially, and legally, improved.
Top Image: U.S. Library of Congress