We of the present day, who rejoice in our well-lighted thoroughfares by night, and look upon a quiet stroll after sundown through the peopled streets as one of our most natural recreations, find it difficult to throw our imaginations back to what even London streets were after dark not 150 years ago. At that time, the streets of the great metropolis were at nightfall gradually involved in almost Cimmerian darkness. The inhabitants in the larger streets were obliged, by the order of the Lord Mayor, to hang out lanterns over their doors. These did little more than serve the admirable purpose of making the darkness, if possible, more palpable; and the humble beacons were all extinguished at about 11 o’clock. Glass lamps, supplied with oil, were the next improvement on the private lantern system, and these began to be generally adopted not only in London, but in the larger towns in the country. The expense of keeping them up was, by act of Parliament, defrayed by a lighting rate in the different parishes. But even these lamps were comparatively few and far between. They had only single wicks, and are about as valuable for illuminating purposes as so many common rush-lights fixed on the tops of poles at a very respectable distance from one another. And it must be remembered that even these advantages to travellers after dark were confined only to the more important thoroughfares. The side streets, unless the moon was up, were no better than a country lane, miles away from any human habitation, is at the present moment on a dark night.
After this a great improvement was made. The wicks were enlarged, double and triple lights were introduced, and something nearer to a useful lighting of the public streets was the result. Many persons now living remember well this last system, previous to the invention of gas, by which the streets of London were thus illuminated by oil lamps; and great must have been the contrast to them between this mode of lighting with oil and the new principle of gas.
Although the adoption of this valuable invention is a matter so recent in the history of our social progress, doubt has been raised as to the individual to whom the discovery may be fairly attributed.
The inflammability of gas obtained from coal was known long before the idea was ever entertained of turning the discovery to a practical purpose. The miners were practically acquainted with the existence of choke-damp and fire-damp long before the establishment of the Royal Society: and the earliest notice of either is in their Transactions in the year 1667. In “A Description of a Well and Earth in Lancashire taking Fire by a Candle approached to it: Imparted by Thomas Shirley, Esq., an Eye-witness,” the writer correctly attributed the exhalations from the burning well of Wigan, in Lancashire to the coal-beds which lie under that part of the county. Soon after, Dr Clayton, moved by the arguments of Shirley, actually made coal gas, and described the results of his experiments in a letter to the Hon. Robert Boyle, who died in the year 1691. He distilled coal in a retort, and the results were, to use his own words, phlegm, black oil, and a spirit which he was unable to condense, but which he confined in a bladder. These are precisely what are found now, with simply an alteration of names – the phlegm being water; the black oil, coal tar; and the spirit, gas. Clayton several times repeated the experiment, and used to amuse his friends by burning the gas as it came from the bladder through holes which he pricked in it with a pin. It is strange that the hint so plainly given of the inflammability of coal gas did not suggest the practicability of adapting it to useful economic purposes until so long after.
In the year 1773, Sir James Lowther, in “An account of the Damp Air in a Coal Pit, sunk within 20 Yards of the sea,” communicated to the Royal Society a curious notice of a spontaneous evolution of gas at a colliery belonging to him near Whitehaven. As the description of the incident narrated is not very long, and explains with admirable exactitude the principal properties of cold gas, we may be excused for quoting it:-
“Sir James Lowther having occasion to sink a pit near the full sea mark, for the drawing one of his principal collieries, near Whitehaven, in the county of Cumberland, which was known would be near 80 fathom in depth to the best seam of coals which is 3 yards thick, the work was carried on day and night, very successfully through several beds of hard stone, coal, and other minerals, till the pit was sunk down 42 fathom from the surface, when they came to a bed of black stone about 6 inches thick, very full of joints and open cliffs, which divided the stones into pieces of about 6 inches square, the sides whereof were all spangled with sulphur and in the colour of gold. Under this black stone lies a bed of coal 2 feet thick. When the workmen first pricked the Black Stone bed, which was on the rise side of the pit, it afforded very little water, contrary to what was expected; but instead thereof, a vast quantity of damp, corrupted air, which bubbled through a quantity of water, then spread over that part of the pit, and made a great hissing noise; at which the workmen, being somewhat surprised, held a candle towards it, and it immediately took fire upon the surface of the water, and burned very fiercely, the flame being about half a yard in diameter and near 2 yards high, which frightened the workmen so that they took the rope and went up the pit having first extinguished the flame by beating it out with their hats.
“The steward of the works being made acquainted with it, went down the pit with one of the men, and holding a candle to the same place, it immediately took fire again as before, and burnt about the same bigness, the flame being blue at the bottom, and more white towards the top. They suffered it to burn for nearly half an hour, and no water being drawn in the time, it rose and covered the bottom of the pit near a yard deep, but did very little abate the violence or bulk of the flame, it still continuing to burn upon the surface of the water. They then extinguished the flame as before, and opened the black stone bed, near 2 feet broad, that a greater quantity of air might issue forth, and then fired it again. It burned a full yard in diameter, and about 3 yards high, which soon heated the pit to so great a degree that the men were in danger of being stifled, and so were as expeditious as possible in extinguishing the flame, which was then too strong to be beaten out with their hats; but with the assistance of a spout of water of 4 inches in diameter, let down from a cistern above, they happily got it extinguished without further harm. After this, no candles were suffered to come near it till the pit was sunk down quite through the bed of black stone, and the 2 foot coal underneath it; and all that part of the pit, for four or five feet high, was framed quite round, and very closely jointed, so as to repel the damp air, which nevertheless, it was apprehended would break out in some other adjoining part, unless it was carried off as soon as produced out of the cliffs of the stone; for which end a small hollow was left behind the framing, in order to collect all the damp air on one side of the pit, where a tube of about 2 inches square was closely fixed: one end of it into the hollow behind the framing and the other carried up into the open air, 4 yards above the top of the pit; and through this tube the said damp air has ever since discharged itself without being sensibly diminished in its strength or lessened in its quantity since it was first opened which is now two years and nine months ago”
Soon after the middle of the last century Dr Richard Watson, afterwards Bishop of Llandaff, made many experiments on coal gas, the results of which he details in the second volume of his “Chemical Essays”. He distilled the coal, passed the gas through water, conveyed it through pipes from one place to another; in fact did nearly everything with his gas but the one great thing needful – apply it to general practical use.
The honour of being the real originator of the gas-light system of illuminating the public thoroughfares belongs almost undoubtedly to Mr Murdoch, or as he was always familiarly styled “Old Murdoch”.
In the year 1792 he used coal gas for lighting his house and offices at Redruth, in Cornwall. Old Murdoch who was an engineer by profession, seems to have been one of those original geniuses who unlike many – too many – scientific philosophers, do not disclaim to turn, if possible, the results of their experiments to some practical use. When he was living in Cornwall he made gas from every substance under the Sun that he could think of. He lighted his house and a street lamp; he had bladders filled with it, to carry at night with which, and his little steam carriage – another pet invention of his own – he would astonish his admiring neighbours. Mr James Watt, Jr., in his evidence before a committee of the House of Commons, on the Gas-light and Coke Bill, in 1809, stated that he had known Mr Murdoch for 30 years; that he had communicated to him his idea respecting the combustion of inflammable gas from coal in the latter end of the year 1794 or beginning of 1795; that he informed him two years before that period, that he had made various experiments in Cornwall, from which he had deduced that a very considerable economy would attend the use of gas from coal in producing light, as a substitute for oils and tallow; and that he had proposed to him either in 1795 or 1798, that a patent should be taken out for this invention.
In 1797, Murdoch made a similar use of his coal gas at old Cumnock in Ayrshire; and in 1798 he removed from Cornwall to Boulton and Watt’s foundry, at Soho, near Birmingham. Here he resumed his experiments on a larger scale, with a view to ascertain not only the best mode of manufacturing the gas, but also of purifying and burning it so as to avoid the drawbacks of smell and smoke. For many successive nights he lighted up the principal building in the enormous establishment at Soho with coal gas.
But the triumph of all his efforts came in the spring of 1802. Peace had just been proclaimed, and Murdoch seized the opportunity of the popular rejoicing to give the first public exhibition of his success. The Soho works were illuminated on a scale of extraordinary splendour. The whole front of that extensive range of buildings was ornamented with a great variety of devices that admirably set off many of the varied forms of which the gas-light was susceptible. The site was as novel as it was astonishing. All populous Birmingham turned out en masse to gaze and wonder at what must have almost seemed to them a miracle from another world.
The whole affair was a success. From that night the old system of oil-lamps was really doomed; and it is remarkable fact in the history of gas-lighting that the streets of Birmingham were lighted by lamps before they were used in London.
Yet for this great and wonderful invention, which was nothing less than a benefit to all civilised humanity, and may be said to have brought about a perfect revolution in the life and habits of every city in the kingdom, Murdoch received not a farthing of recompense to himself. A writer of the day, discussing Murdoch’s claim to public recognition, indignantly asked – “Why was not Murdoch rewarded by the Parliament which rewarded Mrs Stevens for a cure which turned out no cure at all; and Dr Smyth for not inventing fumigations by acids; and Mr Manby for another man’s invention and Mr Macadam for doing what has been done in Switzerland, and in Scotland and elsewhere, time out of mind? Ask Parliamentary sapience and justice why. Omniscience can doubtless answer what omnipotence performs. But it is all luck. Mr Murdoch got no patent, no reward and no fame. Known to be the inventor! Yes, to whom? To Messrs Watt and Boulton and 20 more. Alas! fame and fortune are twin imposters, and what ‘one does the other will swear to’. But thou wert an ignoramus, Old Murdoch. Why didst thou not puff thyself? Thinkest thou that if Sir A or Sir B had invented the gas- light we should ever have heard the last of it?”
But while Murdoch kept modestly in the background, others had taken the cue from him, and were working steadily in the same field. A Mr Le Bon, at Paris had lighted up his house and gardens with the gas obtained from wood and coal, and proposed to light up the French metropolis in the same manner. In this country, a certain Mr Winsor stepped to the front, and having, as is pretty clearly proved, borrowed his knowledge from Le Bon, in a number of advertisements and subsequent pamphlets attracted public attention to himself, and laid claim to gas-lighting, etc., as his own “discovery” and “invention.”
In 1803 and 1804, this new claimant publicly exhibited his plan of illumination by coal gas at the Lyceum Theatre, in London. Here he delivered lectures on the subject, which he illustrated by various experiments. Amongst others, he showed the manner of conveying the gas from one part of a house to another; and by the use of different kinds of burners he was enabled to display something of that variety of form which may be given to its flame. His exhibitions proved that the flame of coal gas was not liable to be extinguished by strong and sudden gusts of wind; and he also showed that, if properly managed, the burning of it would neither produce smoke nor throw out such sparks as often fly from the burning wicks of lamps and candles. Credit must, however, be given to the more practically minded German for drawing that public attention to the value of the new discovery which Murdoch was too modest to enforce. But Winsor’s success was not on a par with his ambition. He was a man of enormous pretensions, and of no real scientific knowledge. What was worse, he selected for his assistants’ men who were remarkable only for their ignorance; and he was the victim also, of endless impositions and practical jokes. Being a foreigner – it was said, in fact, that he had been assistant himself to Le Bon, at Paris – he was obliged to hire a person to read his lectures to his audiences.
Sometimes, when the theatre was crowded with people waiting to hear the lecture, the recusant reader would fail to appear, and the audience was obliged to break up in disgust.
His gas, too from being burnt in a very impure state, was far from gratifying to the olfactory organs; and thus he often aroused in many minds a prejudice against the subject of his advocacy.
In May, 18 04 Winsor did what Murdoch neglected to do- namely obtained a patent. In 1807 he lighted up a part of one side of Pall Mall, and this may be said to have commenced the lighting of London streets by gas. Winsor’s next step was to establish what he called the National Light and Heat Company – raising, it is said, £50,000 under promises of the most extravagant profits to the subscribers, which would nearly equal those of the New River Company. But the 50,000 was soon wasted in experiments which came to nothing.
In the meantime, however, Murdoch had taken courage, and came more to the front. In 1808, he communicated to the Royal Society a detailed account of his successful application of cold gas in lighting the large cotton mills of Messrs. Phillips & Lee, at Manchester. For this he received the Rumford Medal. The paper was inserted in the Transactions of the Society, and being copied pretty extensively into the papers and magazines, created in the public mind a greater degree of favourable public attention than had yet been accorded to the new scheme.
In 1809, application was made to Parliament for an act to incorporate a company for carrying out some plan of lighting London General generally. The application failed that year but was successful the next; and thus arose the London and Westminster Chartered Gas-light and Coke Company, with a capital of £200,000 incorporated in 1812. From this time the new reform may be said to have been permanently established. The business of the company gradually increased. Fresh companies were formed, and every year saw a greater number of our London streets lighted by the new process. The provincial towns followed the example; and Continental cities, one by one, adopted the new order of things.
To show how rapidly the business of the chartered company alone increased in a few years from its first foundation, we need only to look at the fact that in 1823 it consumed annually 20,679 chaldrons of coal, which produced on an average 680,000 cubic feet of gas every night; and this was distributed by means of 122 miles of pipe, which supplied more than 30,000 burners, giving a light equal to as many pounds of tallow candles.
Various substitutes for coal in the manufacture of gas have been tried from time to time, but with no practical success. Oil yields a brilliant gas which is easy of manufacture; but coal exceeds them all in cheapness, and consequently is almost universally employed.
We are so much accustomed, at the present day, to see even the humblest street or lane illuminated by its gas lamps, that we are inclined to smile at some of the enthusiastic language called forth from the writers of the day when the new light was in the early days of its gradual establishment; but there is much sound truth in the following, from a periodical of the time, which we are not sure does not hold good to a certain extent even at the present very enlightened time:-
“The new light! Yes, much has been said of its power and influence; but what has all the new light of all the preachers done for the morality and order of London compared to what has been effected by this new light? Old Murdoch alone has suppressed more vice than the Suppression Society, and has been a greater police officer into the bargain, than old Colquhoun and Sir Richard Birnie united.
“It is not only that men are afraid to be wicked when light is looking at them, but they are ashamed also: the reformation is applied to the right place. Where does vice resort? Where it can hide – in darkness, says the preacher, because it’s deeds are deeds of darkness. Seek it in Pudding-Lane and Dyot-street and the abysses of Westminster.
“Why was not this new light preached to them long ago? Twenty bushels of it would have been of more value than as many chaldrons of sermons, and taking even the explosions of the inspector into the bargain. But it is well that this is at length to be compulsory, since it is never too late.
“Thieves and rogues are like moths in blankets: bring the sun to shine on them and they can neither live nor breed. See the Duke of Wellington place a gas-lamp at every door of these infernal abodes; and, since they cannot be smoked out, make their houses as much like glass – on the principle of the old Roman – as we can compass. This is the remedy – at least, till common sense will condescend to the better expedient of pulling down and laying open all these retreats of misery and vice, the disgrace and the nuisance of London and not less a standing inhumanity to the poor themselves.
“Yes, Regent-Street is fine and showy, and – if anyone pleases – useful: and so are the new churches – or might be. But the whole would have been well exchanged for 50 or 100 clean, open, spacious, and well-lighted streets of houses, fitted for the habitations of the lowest orders of London: and while the charity would have been great as penitentiaries, soups, and subscriptions, so would the moral result have been more valuable than that of the whole of the churches united.”