Coin that Phrase: “Canary in a Coal Mine”
Many of us have Heard the Phrase, but what does it Really mean?
by Ali Khan, age 15
With their keen sense of impending danger, there’s more value to canaries than just their harmonious music.
As far back as the Industrial Revolution, canaries were used
as a safety mechanism in coal mines. Because of the lack of high-tech
ventilation systems, coal miners in the late 1700’s brought cages of
canaries inside new coal seams.
Along with their
vocal talents, canaries are especially sensitive to methane and carbon
monoxide gases, which makes them helpful in detecting dangerous gas
build-ups in coal mines. Other animals were occasionally used to test
the air, but the canary had the strongest reaction to small
concentrations of gases.
As miners worked, they
listened to the serene melodies of canaries chirping. But as soon as the
canaries stopped singing, the silence foretold potential danger. A dead
canary was a signal for the miners to evacuate the coal mine
Although methane gas detection and coal
mining technology has improved, mining companies used the canary method
well into the 20th century. Today, the phrase “canary in a coal mine” is
used as a metaphor referring to something that serves as a warning of
danger. For example, private landowners have become the “canary in a
coal mine” for cougar sightings in Wisconsin.
The innocent canary may have suffered its fate, but its silence often prevented the deaths of miners.