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Laboratory in a coal mine

Pea soup fog and thirty-seven degree air conspired to dampen the spirits of two thousand shivering spectators at the Allegheny Arsenal on the morning of October 30, 1911.  That day would mark the inauguration of the U.S. Bureau of Mines Mine Rescue and Safety program.   By 1911 employment in the coal industry had ascended to a position second only to agriculture in the United States.  But the industry’s success had come at a high price.  During the festivities a parade of 19,927 miners paid tribute to an equal number of their brethren who had been killed in coal mining accidents over the previous twenty years.

Although today scientists understand the physics of ignition, combustion and explosions in coalmines, in 1911, nobody had yet connected the dots.  It fell to the Bureau of Mines to connect them.  Essential to that task was a controllable environment in which to study explosions. The Bureau's new Experimental Mine in Pittsburgh's South Hills in the village of Bruceton was such a place.  One of the first questions for the Bureau was whether methane was necessary to trigger a mine explosion.  The answer would come later that day.

Following the morning's festivities at the Arsenal, at 2:00 pm, a special train departed Pittsburgh for Bruceton, where government miners had punched a series of three horizontal tunnels, as long as 750 feet, into a hillside coal seam.  The result was a 2,000-foot complex of interconnected rooms, galleries, passageways, airshafts and corridors.  In preparation for the inaugural experiment, at the back of the mine workers had sectioned off a room with sandbags in which they deposited two pounds of blasting powder.  They then sprinkled 700 pounds of coal dust along the walls of the mine.

At 2:30 a driving rain greeted the fifteen-hundred-odd train riders who steadfastly deboarded and hiked the half-mile to the observation site.  At the clearing, they formed a forest of umbrellas beneath which men wearing high-topped shoes and women wearing extravagant hats milled about the soggy turf several hundred feet before the experimental mine's three gaping orifices: the main entrance, the ventilation tunnel, and the iron-clad-and-grated explosives test gallery.  The crowd consisted of government bureaucrats, elected officials, explosives experts, foreign delegates, journalists, coal producers and miners from thirty states, Mexico, France and other countries.

Detonation was set for 3:45 PM.  As the time neared the alert whistle sounded. Then three pistol shots signaled the final warning.  Then nothing.  The first try was a dud.  Another pass, and again, nothing.  The sun set at 5:19 Pittsburgh Meridian Time.  Darkness shrouded the mine from view.  The drizzle continued as teeth chattered, bones shivered and patience wore thin. Then at about 5:45 the earth trembled just long enough to alert inattentive onlookers to focus their eyes on the mine.  Within seconds the report of the detonation thundered through the air, as three clouds of dust spewed forth in rapid succession, followed instantaneously by three two-hundred-foot tongues of flame that set trees ablaze, illuminating the spectacle for onlookers.  Burning support timbers and tattered sand bags flew through the air like cannon fire.  A railcar was blown off its track at the mouth of the mine into a sediment pond.  As the crowd cheered in astonishment, mine rescue workers began to flock toward the mine to test their newly acquired skills.

The events of that dreary day were cause for jubilation.  The experiment had been a success.   Coal dust alone could cause a mine explosion.  The field of mine rescue and safety had been born.  A dangerous occupation was made safer. And over the next six decades the Experimental Mine at what would evolve into the National Energy Technology Laboratory would host more than two thousand life-saving experiments like the one that took place that day.

This article first appeared in Tom Imerito’s TEQ column, Innovation Chronicles.

© Copyright 2007, Thomas P. Imerito / dba Science Communications

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