Although we now take for granted the ready availability of cheap and safe gas for heating and cooking, it is a relatively recent addition to our everyday lives in its natural gas incarnation, most households converting in the late sixties and early seventies. Prior to that, the manufacture of gas from coal, wood and oil was a huge industry in the United Kingdom for almost a hundred and fifty years.
Like many great advances in modern living, it was a Scot, William Murdoch, who first put the phenomenon of burning coal to practical use, putting it to work lighting his home in Cornwall in 1792. The effect of heated coal in a low-oxygen environment had long been treated as a kind of novelty or parlour trick, but Murdoch’s innovation kick-started a revolution in providing an affordable source of heat and light to Britain’s major cities.
After the first gasworks was constructed in a cotton mill by Murdoch’s employers in London in 1806, London’s Pall Mall was the first to use gas as streetlights, and in 1812 a German entrepreneur , Frederick Winsor, gained a Royal Charter to build the world’s first public gas works. Within fifteen years, almost every large town in Britain, as well as many major cities in Europe and North America.
Spread of Street Lighting
For many years the production of gaslight operated by monopolies where a single company would control a given geographical area, either publicly owned in the case of Murdoch’s Manchester, or privately in London and many North American cities. The companies attracted sustained criticism for their ability to charge as they pleased, a practice that garnered huge profits and went largely unchallenged until the proliferation of electric light in the 1880s, which became a time of widespread innovation in gaslight technology.
Electric light itself was still in its infancy at this point, and much of the groundbreaking work in making it publicly available came from the States. In 1879 the California Electric Company in San Francisco was the first utility company to
sell electricity to multiple customers from a central plant, and within a couple of years arc lights were in widespread use in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal and other major cities.
Since then, gas and electricity have been our primary sources of heat and light as the world’s cities grew exponentially through the twentieth century. Electricity’s capacity for supplying power en mass far outstripped that of manufactured gas, which was gradually phased out in favour of the more energy-efficient alternative. Today, natural gas is used increasingly widely as an alternative source of transportation fuel, with Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, Iran and India leading the crowd in building vehicles that run primarily on natural gas, which emits far smaller amounts of CO2 than traditional fossil fuels.
Though energy production is much cleaner now than it once was, science is still pushing hard for a sustainable means of providing for the world’s huge energy demands that does not damage the environment. That dream is closer to a reality than ever before.
Catherine Halsey is based in Edinburgh and writes for a digital marketing company.