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Carbide bicycle lamp (circa 1930?)In those early cycling days (early 1930's), Joan & Les used 'carbide' lamps on their bikes.  In fact, the one pictured here is almost an exact copy of the ones they used.  I bought this lamp  with the intention of giving it to Les to see if he could get it working (he likes tinkering about with things like that). After talking to various people, particularly my friend Mauro from Castelfiorentino, who turns out to be a chemist (so he should know!), I decided I didn't want to be responsible for blowing up a 92 year old especially after he's reached this point in life relatively unscathed. But of course, once Les had seen it, it was down to the shed and give it a go. 

Calcium carbideAll we needed now was some calcium carbide!
I was advised to try caving/potholing clubs, but after no luck there, I found a chap in Canada who sold it by mail order.
Note that it's now no longer available from there, BUT, you can get it from Caving Supplies in the UK here...

By all accounts these were 'exciting' things to be around!  Basically, lumps of carbide were placed in the bottom chamber.  Water was then dripped on to the carbide from the top chamber and a gas was given off which was lit.  If he ran out of water, Les says he used to ... but we won't go into that here.

Bat wing flame The flame produced is a 'bat wing' flame, the gas arriving from 2 jets. He reckons the light given off was brilliant white, however, this could be down to 'rosy memories of how things were in the old days' - I was going to say a bit like recalling when we had proper cold winters and long hot summers, but hang on - we used to didn't we!  The light weighs a fair bit (the glass front is incredibly thick!) is very substantially made, and fastens to the bike on a hinged bracket.  Les reckoned they rocked up and down quite alarmingly, and a trick to stop them going out when you hit a pothole was to wrap a bit of wire around the ceramic jets with the end of the wire in the flame.  This would glow red and should the light go out, the gas was immediately re-lit by the heat of the wire.  They weren't daft were they ;-)
Here's  a couple of pictures of the lamp lit.  One showing the side view with the coloured glass inserts, and the other showing Les with a black sooty smudge on his forehead (but - he's still got his eyebrows :-)

Side view with front glass open

 Joan & Les with lit lamp (and he still has his eyebrows!)

The main problems seemed to be...

bullet.gif (440 bytes) Keeping the calcium carbide dry.  Les carried it around in a tin in his saddle bag until it was needed.
bullet.gif (440 bytes) Cleaning the lamp.  You had a bit of wire which you used to clean out the nozzles, though the whole assembly unhinges and unscrews to make cleaning easier.
bullet.gif (440 bytes) Regulating the 'drip, drip, drip' of water onto the carbide.
bullet.gif (440 bytes) Disposing of the 'sludge' left over which I'm reliably informed is garden lime.  I guess in the 1930's it just went down the drain (or on the garden).

I did ask about the type of rear light they used, but apparently at the time they were using these front lamps, they didn't use a rear light at all.  They just had a reflector on the back. It was only when electric light became the norm that they started using a rear light.  Quite a difference from today, when personally, if anything I'm much more concerned with the quality of my rear lights (yes, I do use more than one!).