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Gas

Gas was the first of the new fuels to be produced. Gas began life as a by-product of coke manufacture, since coke was increasingly in demand to fuel the iron industry.

"Leon", the first gasligt in Paris ©  Shirley Burchill

Coal gas, as it was called, was first used in 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. Gradually his business expanded as gas lighting was installed in many mills, factories and houses.

By 1823, over fifty towns and cities were lit by gas. It proved to be a very economical method of lighting, costing up to 75% less than lighting produced by oil lamps or candles. In 1859, gas lighting was to be found all over Britain. Over 1000 gas works had sprung up to meet the demand for the new fuel. Between 1865 and 1885, there was a boom in investment in gas, which reduced its cost even further.

The economic effect of gas lighting was to allow factories to work much longer hours. This was particularly important during the winter months when nights were longer. Factories could even work continuously over 24 hours, so increasing production. The brighter lighting which gas provided allowed people to read more easily and for longer. This stimulated literacy and learning, so speeding up the Industrial Revolution. Towns became much safer places to travel around because gas lamps were installed in the street, so reducing crime rates.

During the manufacture of coal gas a number of other chemicals were produced. These by-products included ammonia, naptha and coal tar which formed the basis of the chemical industry. Ammonia, when combined with other chemicals, was found to be a good artificial fertilizer. Mackintosh discovered that naptha was able to dissolve rubber. This discovery led to the creation of the famous waterproof overcoat that came to bear his name.

At first, coal tar seemed to be a rather smelly by-product with little practical use. Later, however, it was found that when coal tar was combined with road-stone grit, it made an excellent sealed layer to top road surfaces. This layer became known as tarmacadam. It transformed the dusty lanes of the 19th century into the black, smooth roads that we use today. Coal tar also became the centre of a new industry when it was discovered that artificial dyes could be extracted from it. These were the first successful artificial dyes and they were in great demand.

Pieces of leather which have been dyed ©  Shirley Burchill

By the end of the century, gas lighting was found in most shops, houses, factories and schools throughout Britain and Europe. This cheap form of lighting was soon to suffer severe competition from the newly invented, but much more costly (and dimmer), electric light.

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2014