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Gas lighting is production of artificial light from combustion of a gaseous fuel, such as hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, propane, butane, acetylene, ethylene, or natural gas. Before electricity became sufficiently widespread and economical to allow for general public use, gas was the most popular means of outdoor and indoor lighting in cities and suburbs. Early gas lights had to be lit manually, but many later designs are self-igniting.
Gas lighting today is typically used for camping, where the high energy density of a hydrocarbon fuel, combined with the modular nature of canisters (a strong metal container) allows bright and long lasting light to be produced cheaply and without complex equipment. In addition, some urban historical districts retain gas street lighting, and gas lighting is used indoors or outdoors to create or preserve a nostalgic effect.
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. Chinese records dating back 1700 years note the use of natural gas in the home for light and heat via bamboo pipes to the dwellings.
Public illumination preceded the discovery and adoption of gaslight by centuries. In 1417, Sir Henry Barton, Mayor of London, ordained "lanterns with lights to be 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 16th 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 as a fine for failing to do so.
In coal mining, accumulating and escaping gases were known originally for their adverse effects rather than their useful qualities. Coal miners described two types of gases, one called the choke damp and the other fire damp. In 1667, a paper detailing the effects of these gases 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."
Stephen Hales was the first person who procured a 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 of the Royal Society in 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 some time, it still retained its flammability. 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 its flammability 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 flammability.
Early gas lighting
William Murdoch (sometimes spelled "Murdock") was the first to exploit the flammability of gas for the practical application of lighting. He worked for Matthew Boulton and James Watt at their Soho Foundry steam engine works in Birmingham England. In the early 1790s, while overseeing the use of his company's steam engines in tin mining in Cornwall, Murdoch began experimenting with various types of gas, finally settling on coal-gas as the most effective. He first lit his own house in Redruth, Cornwall in 1792. 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. Clegg left his job to set up his own gas lighting business, the Gas Lighting and Coke Company.
In 1801, Phillipe Lebon 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; having obtained the gas from wood, peat, different kinds of coal, oil, wax, &c. he quantified the intensity of the light from each source.
Josiah Pemberton, an inventor, had for some time been experimenting on the nature of gas. A resident of Birmingham, his attention may have been 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" wherein he described 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 was demonstrated in Pall Mall, London on January 28, 1807 by Frederick Albert Winsor. 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. Less than two years later, on December 31, 1813, the Westminster Bridge was lit by gas.
As artificial lighting became more common, desire grew for it to become readily available to the public. 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.
Spread of gas lighting
Among the economic impacts of gas lighting was much longer work hours in factories. This was particularly important in Great Britain during the winter months when nights are significantly longer. Factories could even work continuously over 24 hours, resulting in increased production. Following successful commercialization, gas lighting spread to other countries.
The first place outside of London in England to have gas lighting, was Preston, Lancashire in 1816; this was due to the Preston Gaslight Company run by revolutionary Joseph Dunn, who found the most improved way of brighter gas lighting.
The use of gas lights in Rembrandt Peale's Museum in Baltimore in 1816 was a great success. Baltimore was the first American city with gas streetlights, provided by Peale's Gas Light Company of Baltimore. The first private residence in the US illuminated by gas was that of William Henry, a coppersmith, at 200 Lombard Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 1817, at the three stations of the Chartered Gas Company, 25 chaldrons (24 m³) of coal were carbonized daily, producing 300,000 cubic feet (8,500 m³) of gas. This supplied gas lamps equal to 75,000 Argand lamps each yielding the light of six candles. At the City Gas Works, in Dorset Street, Blackfriars, three chaldrons of coal were carbonized each day, providing the gas equivalent of 9,000 Argand lamps. So 28 chaldrons of coal were carbonized daily, and 84,000 lights supplied by those two companies only.
At this period the principal difficulty in gas manufacture was purification. Mr. D. Wilson, of Dublin, patented a method for purifying coal-gas by means of the chemical action of ammoniacal gas. Another plan was devised by Mr. Reuben Phillips, of Exeter, who patented the purification of coal-gas by the use of dry lime. Mr. G. Holworthy, in 1818, patented 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. Gaslight cost up to 75% less than oil lamps or candles, which helped to accelerate its development and deployment. By 1859, gas lighting was to be found all over Britain and about a thousand 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 stimulate 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 patented an apparatus for the decomposition of "oil" and other animal substances. Public attention was attracted to "oil-gas" by the display of the patent apparatus at Apothecary's Hall, by Taylor & Martineau.
In 1891 the gas mantle was invented by the Austrian chemist Carl Auer von Welsbach. This eliminated the need for special illuminating gas - a synthetic mixture of hydrogen and hydrocarbon gases produced by destructive distillation of bituminous coal or peat, to get bright shining flames. Acetylene was also used from about 1898 for gas lighting on a smaller scale.
Illuminating gas was used for gas lighting, as it produces a much brighter light than natural gas or water gas. Illuminating gas was much less toxic than other forms of coal-gas, but less could be produced from a given quantity of coal. The experiments with distilling coal were described by John Clayton in 1684. George Dixon's pilot plant exploded in 1760, setting back the production of illuminating gas a few years. The first commercial application was in a Manchester cotton mill in 1806. In 1901, studies of the defoliant effect of leaking gas pipes led to the discovery that ethylene is a plant hormone.
Throughout the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th, the gas was manufactured by the gasification of coal. In the latter years of the nineteenth century, natural gas began to replace coal-gas, first in the US, and then in other parts of the world. In the United Kingdom, coal-gas was used until the early 1970s.
Theatrical gas lighting
It took many years of development and testing before gas lighting for the stage would be commercially available for use in theatres. Gas technology would then be installed in just about every major theatre in the world. However, lighting with means of gas would be short lived because the invention of the electric light bulb would be soon to follow.
It would take close to two hundred years for gas to become accessible for commercial use. A Flemish alchemist, Jan Baptista van Helmont was the first person to formally recognize gas as a state of matter. He would go on to identify several types of gasses including carbon dioxide. Over one hundred years later in 1733, Sir James Lowther had some of his miners working on a water pit for his mine. While digging the pit they hit a pocket of gas. Lowther took some sample of the gas and took it home to do some experiments. He noted "The said air being put into a bladder…and tied close, may be carried away, and kept some days, and being afterwards pressed gently through a small pipe into the flame of a candle, will take fire, and burn at the end of the pipe as long as the bladder is gently pressed to feed the flame, and when taken from the candle after it is so lighted, it will continue burning till there is no more air left in the bladder to supply the flame."(Penzel 28) Lowther had basically discovered the principle behind gas lighting.
Later in the eighteenth Century William Murdoch would state: "the gas obtained by distillation from coal, peat, wood and other inflammable substances burnt with great brilliancy upon being set fire to … by conducting it through tubes, it might be employed as an economical substitute for lamps and candles." (Penzel 29) Murdoch’s first invention was a lantern with a gas-filled bladder attached to a jet. He would use this to walk home at night. After seeing how well this worked he decided to light his home with gas. In 1797, Murdoch would install gas lighting into his new home as well as the workshop in which he worked. “This work was of a large scale, and he next experimented to find better ways of producing, purifying, and burning the gas.”(Penzel 30) The foundation had been laid for companies to start producing gas and other inventors to start playing with ways of using the new technology. This new technology would quickly find its way to the stage.
In the 19th century gas stage lighting would go from a crude experiment to the most popular way of lighting theatrical stages. In 1804, Frederick Albert Windsor, a German, first demonstrated the way to use gas to light the stage in London at the Lyceum Theatre. Although the demonstration and all the lead research were being done in London, “in 1816 at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia was the earliest gas lit theatre in world” (Wilson,362). In 1817 the Lyceum, Drury Lane, and Covent Garden theatres were all lit by gas. Gas would be brought into the building by “Miles of rubber tubing from outlets in the floor called 'water joints' carried the gas to border-lights and wing lights". But before it was distributed, the gas came through a central distribution point called a “gas table”. (Sellman 15) The gas table was how the brightness could be “varied by regulating the gas supply, and the gas table, which allowed control of separate parts of the stage, became the first stage 'switchboard'". (Pilbrow 174).
By the 1850s gas lighting in theatres had spread practically all over the United States and Europe. Some of the largest installations of gas lighting would be in large auditoriums, like the Theatre de Chatelet, built in 1862 (Penzel 69). In 1875 the new Paris Opera was constructed. “Its lighting system contained more than twenty-eight miles of gas piping, and its gas table had no fewer than eighty-eight stopcocks, which controlled nine hundred and sixty gas jets.” (Penzel 69) The theatre that used the most gas lighting was the Astley’s Equestrian Amphitheatre in London. According to the Illustrated London News “Everywhere white and gold meets the eye, and about 200,000 gas jets add to the glittering effect of the auditorium…such a blaze of light and splendour has scarcely ever witnessed, even in dreams.” (Penzel 69)
Theatres were switching over to gas lighting not just because it was more economical than using candles but also required less labor to operate. With gas lighting, theatres would no longer need to have people tending to candles during a performance, or having to light each candle individually. “It was easier to light a row of gas jets than a greater quantity of candles high in the air.” (Pilbrow 174). Theatres also no longer need to worry about wax dripping on the actors during a show.
Gas lighting also had an effect on the actors. The actors now could use less make-up and their motions did not have to be as exaggerated. The reasoning for this was because the stage was now brighter than it had ever been before. What had once been on half-lit stages was now on in fully lit stages. Production companies were so impressed with the new technology that some would go as far to say, “This light is perfect for the stage. One can obtain gradation of brightness that is really magical.” (Pilbrow 174).
The best thing that happened due to this change was the respect from the audience. There was no more shouting or riots. The light pushed the actors more up stage behind the proscenium helping the audience concentrate more on the action that was taking place on stage rather than what was going on in the house. Management had more authority on what went on during the show because they could see (Penzel 54). Gaslight was the leading cause of behavior change in theaters. It was no longer a place for mingling and orange selling; it was now a place of respected entertainment.
Gas was distributed throughout the whole theater so, how did the system actually work? Step one is the heating of coal gas in a cast iron cylinder and extracting gas from the coal. This process produced an explosive carbon that was removed simply by turning the cylinder on its side and placing doors on the ends for the carbon's easy removal. Purified gas consisted of hydrogen, methane, carbonic oxide, heavy hydrocarbon, and nitrogen. Gas was stored in tanks called gasometers. Dr. Charles Kugler came up with this concept and found that carbon was easier to remove from the gas after the gas was extracted from the gasometer.
Gas was dispensed through iron mains underground leading gas to smaller cast iron pipes called “services” that led to the burners. Services were connected to the buildings, but, before this connection, a shut-off line, which was controlled by the gas companies, was added. This was done as a safety precaution. The billing was done by counting burners that were in use. The gas meter was invented around 1815 and measured the amount of gas being supplied. Once reaching the building, gas was regulated by using a gas table. This table supplied gas throughout the building with cast-iron or brass tubing. These tubes were led to outlets that were set in the house and on the stage. The outlets were connected to gas burners that produced light to the lighting instruments (Penzel 77).
There were six types of burners but four burners were really experimented with. The first burner used with this system was the single-jet burner that produced a small flame. The tip of the burner was made out of lead which absorbed heat causing the flame to be smaller in size. It was discovered that the flame would burn brighter if straight metal was mixed with other components such as porcelain. Flat burners were invented mainly to evenly distribute gas and light to the systems. The fishtail burner is a relative to the flat burner but it managed to create a brighter flame and conducted less heat. The last burner that was experimented with was the Welsbach burner. Around this time the Bunsen burner was in use along with some forms of electricity. The Welsbach was based off the idea of the Bunsen burner, still using gas, a cotton mesh with cerium and thorium was imbedded into the Welsbach. This source of light was named the “gas mantle” which created three times more of the flame (Penzel 89).
Instruments that were used to light the stage during the nineteenth century fell under different classifications. Footlights, border lights, groundrows, lengths, bunch lights, conical reflector floods, and limelight spots were mainly used during this period. These mechanisms sat directly on the stage blinding the eyesight of the audience. Footlights caused the actor's costumes to catch fire if they got too close to the lights. These lights also caused bothersome heat that affected both audience members and actors. Again, the actors had to adapt to these changes. They started fireproofing their costumes and placing wire mesh in front of the footlights.
Border lights, also known as striplights, were a row of lights that hung horizontally in the flies. Color was added later by dying cotton, wool, and silk cloth. Lengths were constructed the same way as the border light, only these lights were mounted vertically in the rear where the wings were. Bunch lights are a cluster of burners that sat on a vertical base that was fueled directly from the gas line. The conical reflector can be related to Fresnels that are currently used today. This adjustable box of light reflected a beam in which the size could be altered by a barndoor. Limelight spots are similar to today’s current spotlighting system. This instrument was used in scene shops as well as the stage (Penzel 95).
Gas lighting did have some disadvantages. "Several hundred theatres are said to have burned down in America and Europe between 1800 and the introduction of electricity in the late 1800s. The increased heat was objectionable, and the border lights and wing lights had to be lighted by a long stick with a flaming wad of cotton at the end. For many years, an attendant or gas boy moved along the long row of jets, lighting them individually while gas was escaping from the whole row. Both actors and audiences complained of the escaping gas, and explosions sometimes resulted from its accumulation." (Sellman 15)
These problems with gas lighting led to the rapid adoption of electric lighting. “Thomas Edison’s electric incandescent lamp, invented in 1879. By 1881, the Savoy Theatre in London was using incandescent lighting.” (Wilson 364). As electric lighting was being introduced to theatre stages, people who still were using theatre lighting developed the gas mantle in 1885. “This was a beehive-shaped mesh of knitted thread impregnated with lime that, in miniature, converted the naked gas flame into in effect, a lime-light.” (Baugh, 24). However, this made the light produced brighter, an “Engineering report indicates, the pressure to achieve audience comfort, convenience and, above all, the safety that electricity provided ensured that electric technology was rapidly introduced.” (Baugh 24). Electric lighting would slowly take over all lighting, not just in theatres, but everywhere else. In the twentieth century, electric lighting would lead to even better and safer theater productions. These productions would be comfortable to watch with no smell, relatively very little heat, and more freedom for designers.
Decline of gas lighting
In the early 20th century, most cities in the United States and Europe had gaslit streets. However, gas lighting for streets soon gave way to electric lighting. Small incandescent light bulbs began to replace gas lights inside homes in the late 19th century, although the transition took decades to complete. See, for example, Rural electrification.
For a period of time (1870-1900) it was uncertain if electrification would really displace gas lighting. The first Edison electric power systems using generators operated with direct current (DC), and using 100 volt DC incandescent light bulbs. Voltage in wires steadily declines as distance increases, and so the first direct current power plants producing 100 volt power needed to be within about 1 mile of the lamps. This voltage drop problem could not be overcome without complex spinning motors and generators that needed regular maintenance, to step up or step down the voltage. And so for a while, it appeared gas lighting would retain its widespread usage.
The development of alternating current a few years later solved the voltage and distance problem by using high transmission line voltages, and transformers that contained no moving parts and required no maintenance. This finally spelled the end for widespread usage of gas lighting.
Gas street lighting today
Gas lighting of streets has not disappeared completely from some cities, and municipalities that retained gas lighting may now find that it provides a pleasing nostalgic effect. Similarly, gas lighting is also seeing a resurgence in the luxury home market for those in search of historical authenticity.
The largest gas lighting network in the world is that of Berlin. With about 44,000 lamps, it holds more than half of all working gas street lamps in the world. Quite a few streets in central London, the Royal Parks and the exterior of Buckingham Palace remain gaslit, as well as almost the entire Covent Garden area. The Park Estate in Nottingham retains much of its original character, including the original gas lighting network.
In the United States, more than 2800 gas lights in Boston operate in the historic districts of Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Bay Village, Charlestown, and parts of other neighborhoods. In Cincinnati, Ohio more than 1100 gas lights operate in areas that have been named historic districts. Gas lights also operate in parts of the famed French Quarter and outside historic homes throughout the city in New Orleans. A gas lamp is located at N. Holliday Street and E. Baltimore Street in Baltimore as a monument to the first gas lamp in America, erected at that location. Manhattan Beach, California has a gas lamp section in which all the sidewalks are lit by public gas lamps. Disneyland has authentic 19th century gas lamps from Baltimore along the "Main Street, U.S.A." section of the theme park.
South Orange, New Jersey has adopted the gaslight as the symbol of the town, and uses them on nearly all streets. Several other towns in New Jersey also retain gas lighting: Glen Ridge, Palmyra, Riverton, and some parts of Orange, Cape May and Cherry Hill. The Village of Riverside, Illinois, still uses its original gas street lights that are an original feature of the Frederick Law Olmsted planned community.
Many gas utility companies will still quote a fixed periodic rate for a customer-maintained gas lamp, and some homeowners still use such devices. However, the high cost of natural gas lighting at least partly explains why a large number of older gas lamps have been converted to electricity. Solar-rechargeable battery-powered gas light controllers can be easily retrofitted into existing gas lamps to keep the lights off during daylight hours and cut energy consumption and green-house gas carbon emissions by 50%.
The most popular gas lighting fixtures today are made from copper, a durable metal that ages and patinas to protect itself from the elements. Gas lights today are also used with electronic ignition systems that allow the lights to be controlled from an ordinary light switch. With energy conservation a pressing issue today, these systems can also allow gas lights to be placed on a timer or photocell so that they are not running continuously, only when needed. Today, gas lights are widely used for creating ambiance and to accentuate a property's design.
Indoor gas lighting today
The use of natural gas (methane) for indoor lighting is nearly extinct. Besides producing a lot of heat, the combustion of methane tends to release significant amounts of carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas which is more readily absorbed by the blood than oxygen, and can be deadly. Historically, the use of lamps of all types was of shorter duration than we are accustomed to with electric lights, and in the far more draughty buildings, it was of less concern and danger. There are no suppliers of new mantle gas lamps set up for use with natural gas; however, some old homes still have fixtures installed, and some period restorations have salvaged fixtures installed, more for decoration than use.
New fixtures are still made and available for propane (sometimes called "bottle(d) gas"), a product of oil refining, which under most circumstances burns more completely to carbon dioxide and water vapor. In some locations where public utility electricity or kerosene are not readily accessible or desirable, propane gas mantle lamps are still used, although the increased availability of alternative energy sources, such as solar panels and small scale wind generators, combined with increasing efficiency of lighting products, such as compact fluorescent lamps and LEDs are diminishing their use. For occasional use in remote cabins and cottages, propane mantle lamps may still be more economical and less labor-intensive than an alternative energy system.
Perforated tubes bent into the shape of letters were used to form gas lit advertising signs, prior to the introduction of neon lights, as early as 1857 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gas lighting is still in common use for camping lights. Small portable gas lamps, connected to a portable gas cylinder, are a common item on camping trips. Mantle lamps powered by vaporized petrol, such as the Coleman lantern, are also available.
- Blau gas
- Carbide lamp
- List of light sources
- Sewer gas destructor lamp
- Thomas Thorp
- Tilley lamp
- P. James and N. Thorpe, Ancient inventions (Michael O Mara Books, 1995), pp. 427-428: citing Ch'ang Ch'ü (常璩, a geographer), Records of the country south of Mount Kua (華陽國志).
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gas lighting.|
- Pro Gaslicht e.V. : Association for the Preservation of the European Gas-light Culture (German). Listing of the cities with gaslight.
- Berliner Gaslaternen Pages on gas lighting in Berlin (German).
- Gaslaternen-Freilichtmuseum Berlin Open air museum on gas lighting in Berlin (German).
- The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Vol. X, No. 290, dated Saturday, December 29, 1827. The full text is available at Project Gutenberg.
- Open Door Website - 2nd Industrial Revolution
- About.com - Light Inventors
- 1/19/1901;Plants for the Manufacture of Straight Water Gas And Illuminating Water Gas
- 6/5/1875 De Guinon's System of Gas Lighting.
- The Horstamnn Automatic gas Controller - This is the time switch used to turn the gas on and off in the gas lamps around the UK.