Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,457 pages of information and 245,911 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Gas Lighting

From Graces Guide

Lighting is the process of burning piped natural gas or coal gas for illumination. Before electricity became sufficiently widespread and economical to allow for general public use, gas was the most popular means of lighting in cities and suburbs. Early gas lights had to be lit manually but soon gas lights could light themselves.

The man who first utilised the flammability of gas for the practical application of lighting, was William Murdoch (sometimes spelt 'Murdock'), who worked for Matthew Boulton and James Watt at their Soho Foundry steam engine works. Murdoch began experimenting with various types of gas in the early 1790s, finally settling on coal gas as the most effective. In 1798 he used gas to light the main building of the Soho Foundry and in 1802 lit the outside in a public display of gas lighting, the lights astonishing the local population. One of the employees at the Soho Foundry, Samuel Clegg, saw the potential of this new form of lighting.

1803 Murdoch set up the first gasometer at the Soho Foundry[1]

1805 Clegg left Soho to set up his own gas lighting business, the Gas Lighting and Coke Co and was soon engaged by Henry Lodge to adapt a new gas lighting system to his cotton mills at Sowerby Bridge, near Halifax.

Josiah Pemberton, a tireless inventor, had for some time been experimenting on the nature of gas. A resident of Birmingham, his attention was probably roused by the exhibition at Soho. About 1806, he exhibited gas-lights in a variety of forms and with great brilliance, at the front of his manufactory in Birmingham. In 1808 he constructed an apparatus, applicable to several uses, for Benjamin Cooke, a manufacturer of brass tubes, gilt toys, and other articles.

In 1808, Murdoch presented to the Royal Society a paper entitled "Account of the Application of Gas from Coal to Economical Purposes" an account of his successful application of coal gas to lighting the extensive establishment of Messrs. Phillips and Lea. For this paper he was awarded Count Rumford's gold medal. Murdoch's statements threw great light on the comparative advantage of gas and candles and contained much useful information on the expenses of production and management.

The first public street lighting with gas took place in Pall Mall, London on January 28, 1807. In 1812, Parliament granted a charter to the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Co, and the first gas company in the world came into being. A few years later, on December 31, 1813, the Westminster Bridge was lit by gas.

As artificial lighting became more common, the general public became more interested and the desire for it to become commonly available grew. This was in part because towns became much safer places to travel around after gas lamps were installed in the streets, reducing crime rates. In 1809, accordingly, the first application was made to parliament to incorporate a company in order to accelerate the process, but failed to pass. In 1810, however, the application was renewed by the same parties, and though some opposition was encountered and considerable expense incurred, the bill passed, but not without great alterations; and the London and Westminster Chartered Gas-Light and Coke Company was established. By 1816, Samuel Clegg obtained the patent for his horizontal rotative retort, his apparatus for purifying coal gas with cream of lime, and for his rotative gas meter and self-acting governor.

Among the economic impacts of gas lighting was to allow factories to work much longer hours. This was particularly important in Great Britain during the winter months when nights were significantly longer. Factories could even work continuously over 24 hours, resulting in increased production.

In this year, 1817, at the three stations belonging to the Chartered Gas Co, 25 chaldron (24 m³) of coal were daily carbonized, producing 300,000 cubic feet (8,500 m³) of gas, which was equal to the supply of 75,000 Argand lamps, each yielding the light of six candles. At the City Gas Works, in Dorset-street, Black-friars, the quantity of coal daily carbonized amounted to, three chaldron, which afforded a quantity of gas adequate to the supply of 1,500 Argand lamps; so that twenty-eight chaldron of coal were daily carbonized at that time, and 76,500 lights supplied by those two companies only.

At this period the principal object of attention in the manufacture of gas was its purification. Mr. D. Wilson, of Dublin, took out a patent for purifying coal gas by means of the chemical action of ammoniacal gas. Another plan was devised by Mr. Reuben Phillips, of Exeter, who obtained a patent for the purification of coal gas by the use of dry lime. Mr. G. Holworthy, in 1818, took out a patent for a method of purifying it by causing the gas, in a highly-condensed state, to pass through iron retorts heated to a dark red.

By 1823 numerous towns and cities throughout Britain were lit by gas. Costing up to 75% less than lighting produced by oil lamps or candles helped to accelerate its development and deployment. By 1859, gas lighting was to be found all over Britain and 1000 gas works had sprung up to meet the demand for the new fuel. The brighter lighting which gas provided allowed people to read more easily and for longer. This helped to stimulated literacy and learning, speeding up the second Industrial Revolution.

Oil gas appeared in the field as a rival of coal gas. In 1815, John Taylor had obtained a patent for an apparatus for the decomposition of oil and other animal substances; but the circumstance which more particularly attracted the public attention to oil gas was the erection of the patent apparatus at Apothecary's Hall, by Taylor and Martineau.

In 1890, the invention of the gas mantle, attributed to the Austrian scientist Carl Welsbach eliminated the need for special illuminating gas to get bright shining flames.

1892 At the celebration of the centenary of gas lighting in 1892, a bust of Murdoch was unveiled by Lord Kelvin in the Wallace Monument, Stirling.

In the early 20th century, most cities in the United States and Europe had gaslit streets. Gas lighting for streets gave way to low-pressure sodium, and high-pressure mercury, lighting in the 1930s. Small incandescent electric lamps began to replace gas lights in homes in the late 19th century, although the transition took decades to complete. See, for example, Rural electrification.

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