Canaries in the Coal Mine

Photo of Canary

│By Amelie Bonney, Gale Ambassador at the University of Oxford│

Most of us see bright-feathered, warbling canaries as pets, yet these tiny birds were not always just household companions. In the nineteenth century they were used as exceptional risk predictors in mines. This was because they were particularly sensitive to carbon monoxide, a substance which led to numerous mining accidents in the aftermath of industrialisation. Thus, oddly, an increasing reliance on fossil fuels induced a new rapport with nature and animals. The canary’s role in mines became so engrained in the English language that “a canary in the coalmine” is now a well-known phrase, used to refer to early indicators of potential hazards. Gale’s Historical Newspapers allow us to better understand how the canary came to be emblematic of shifting attitudes towards risk during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the English-speaking world.

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The Wrath of Mountains: Explaining Volcanic Eruptions from the Late Eighteenth Century to the Modern Day

“The Straits of Sunda: Terrible Volcanic Eruption.” Illustrated London News, 8 Sept. 1883, p. 229. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003

By Amelie Bonney, Gale Ambassador at the University of Oxford

On December 9, 2019, the deadly volcanic eruption of Mount Whakaari in New Zealand sparked new discussions over risk assessment in volcanic regions. While sudden volcanic eruptions make it difficult for scientists to assess risks in such areas, the belief that eruptions can be predicted thanks to science also leads to increasingly hazardous activities such as tourism in dangerous volcanic regions. How and why have humans become so intrepid when it comes to volcanoes?

The Gale Primary Sources archives provide not only newspaper articles but also a range of valuable monographs and visual sources, ranging from drawings to photographs, which allow us to investigate how our understanding and perception of volcanic eruptions has changed over the last few centuries. The sources demonstrate that the scientific community’s investigations led to the emergence of new understandings of dangerous volcanic eruptions from the late eighteenth century onwards. Paradoxically, scientific explanations of volcanic eruptions created a heightened sense of danger but also led to an increase in risk-taking behaviour.

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“Even the Sacramental Cup Was Not Exempt from Adulteration” – The Hazards of Drinking an Old Bottle of Claret

│By Amelie Bonney, Gale Ambassador at the University of Oxford│

Have you recently enjoyed a special, vintage bottle of wine to celebrate the New Year with your family or friends? You might be surprised to learn that such celebrations might have been quite dangerous during the nineteenth century. Expecting the crimson-coloured beverage to enrapture their senses and coat their tongue in luscious flavours of dried blackberry, leather and tobacco, wine aficionados were often far from suspecting that this elixir could easily turn out to be a cheap, dyed, falsified drink, or worse – deadly poison. In an age where strict regulations exist to control food and beverage adulteration, such hazardous dyes are no longer used, but delving into Gale’s Historic Newspapers allows us to better understand how such dangerous adulteration was allowed to occur during the nineteenth century.

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