Gas lighting

Gas lighting is the process of burning piped natural gas or coal gas for illumination. Before the economicalization of electricity for general public use, it 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.


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Gas lighting in historical center of town Wroclaw, Poland

Early lighting fuels consisted of olive oil, beeswax, fish oil, whale oil, sesame oil, nut oil, and similar substances. These were the most commonly used fuels until the late 18th century. The first known gas light was made by the ancient Chinese collecting natural gas in skins that was used for illumination.

What a striking contrast between the appearance of the brilliantly illuminated streets of 1827, compared with the days of Henry V. In 1417, Sir Henry Barton, mayor of London, ordained 'lanterns with lights to bee hanged out on the winter evenings between Hallowtide and Candlemasse.' Paris was first lit by an order issued in 1524; and in the beginning of the sixteenth century the inhabitants were ordered to keep lights burning in the windows of all houses that faced the streets. In 1668, when some regulations were made for improving the streets of London, the residents were reminded to hang out their lanterns at the usual time; and in 1690 an order was issued to hang out a light, or lamp, every night as soon as it was dark, from Michaelmas to Christmas. By an act of the common council in 1716, all housekeepers, whose houses faced any street, lane, or passage, were required to hang out, every dark night, one or more lights, to burn from six to eleven o'clock, under the penalty of one shilling.

Coal and natural gases were known originally for their adverse effects rather than their useful qualities. Miners used two styles of them, called the choke damp and the fire damp. In 1667 a paper detailing the affects of these was entitled, "A Description of a Well and Earth in Lancashire taking Fire, by a Candle approaching to it. Imparted by Thomas Shirley, Esq an eye-witness."

Dr. Stephen Hales was the first person who procured an flammable fluid from the actual distillation of coal. His experiments with this object are related in the first volume of his Vegetable Statics, published in 1726. From the distillation of "one hundred and fifty-eight grains [10.2 g] of Newcastle coal, he states that he obtained one hundred and eighty cubic inches [2.9 L] of air, which weighed fifty-one grains [3.3 g], being nearly one third of the whole." These results seemed to have passed without notice for several years.

In the "Philosophical Transactions" for 1733, some properties of coal-gas are detailed in a paper called, "An Account of the Damp Air in a Coal-pit of Sir James Lowther, sunk within Twenty Yards of the Sea." This paper, contained some striking facts relating to the flammability and other properties of coal gas.

The principal properties of coal-gas were demonstrated to different members of the Royal Society, and showed that after keeping the gas sometime, it still retained its inflammability. Remarkably, the scientists of the time still saw no useful purpose for it.

John Clayton, in an extract from a letter in the "Philosophical Transactions" for 1735, calls gas the "spirit" of coal; and discovered it's inflammability by an accident. This "spirit" happened to catch fire, by coming in contact with a candle, as it escaped from a fracture in one of his distillatory vessels. By preserving the gas in bladders, he entertained his friends, by exhibiting its inflammability. This is the closest the idea of practical application came.

Coal gas, as it was called, initially used 90 burners to light the Soho steam engine works of Boulton and Watt. Their manager, William Murdock, began experimenting with coal gas and, in 1782, he built a small factory to provide gas lighting for the works. One of the employees at the Soho works, Samuel Clegg, saw the potential of this new form of lighting. Clegg left his job to set up his own gas lighting business, the Gas Lighting and Coke Company.

The man who first applied the inflammability of gas for light, was William Murdoch (sometimes spelt 'Murdock'), who worked for Matthew Boulton and James Watt. His cottage at their Soho Foundary, near Birmingham, was the first domestic building to be lit by gas. The lights covering the works astonished the local population. In 1792, he used coal gas for lighting his house and offices, at Redruth, in Cornwall; and in 1797 he again made a similar use of it at Old Cunnock, in Ayrshire. At Soho, he constructed an apparatus which enabled him to exhibit his plan on a larger scale than had been attempted before. He continued his experiments, Southern and Creighton, with a goal of eliminating both the smoke and the smell. German inventor Freidrich Winzer (Winsor) was the first person to patent coal gas lighting in 1804 and a thermolampe using gas distilled from wood was patented in 1799.

In 1801, a M. Le Bon of Paris had also used gas lights to illuminate his house and gardens, and was considering how to light all of Paris. In 1820, Paris adopted gas street lighting.

In 1804, Dr. Henry delivered a course of lectures on chemistry, at Manchester, in which he showed the mode of producing gas from coal, and the facility and advantage of its use. Dr, Henry analyzed the composition and investigated the properties of carburetted hydrogen gas. His experiments were numerous and accurate, and made upon a variety of substances; and having obtained the gas from wood, peat, different kinds of coal, oil, wax, &c. he quatified the intensity of the light from each source.

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 communicated to the Royal Society a very interesting account of his successful application of coal gas to lighting the extensive establishment of Messrs. Phillips and Lea. For this communication, Count Rumford's gold medal was presented to him. 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 Company, 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 because gas lamps were installed in the street 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; for his rotative gas meter; and self-acting governor.

Following this success, gas lighting spread to other countries. In the United States, Baltimore in 1816 was the first city to light its streets with gas. The first introduction of gas lights in Rembrandt Peal's Museum in Baltimore in 1816 proved to be such a sensation and success that Peale quickly organized the first gas company in the United States and the city council passed an ordinance June 1816, permitted Peale to manufacture gas, lay pipes in the streets, and contract with the city for street lighting.

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 Company, 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 it's 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, so speeding up the 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 be directed to oil gas was the erection of the patent apparatus at Apothecary's Hall, by Messrs. Taylors and Martineau.

Early in the 1800's, most cities in the United States and Europe had streets that were gaslight. Gas lighting for streets gave way to low pressure sodium and high pressure mercury lighting in the 1930s and the development of the electric lighting at the turn of the 19th century replaced gas lighting in homes.

Other Usages

Gaslight is also the name of several movies. The verb, "to gaslight", or "gaslighting", following the premise of the movie, has come down to us as any attempt by one or more people to subtly convince someone else that they are losing their grasp on reality, through physical trickery or mind games, in order to gain some advantage over them.




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