Britain Adopts Gas Lighting

F. A. Winsor and William Murdock established coal gas as an inexpensive and convenient fuel for lighting streets, factories, and public buildings. Generated from coal, the gas was a boon to commercial and manufacturing interests but was also a heavy polluter, and its use led to deteriorating working conditions.

Summary of Event

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, artificial lighting lagged behind other technologies of the infant Industrial Revolution Industrial Revolution;and lighting[Lighting] . Wax candles and the best whale oil Whale oil lamps, used in profusion, provided excellent illumination but were prohibitively expensive. Tallow candles, used by all but the wealthy, required constant attention and were unsuitable for large spaces or outdoor use. Light was a luxury; for the most part, eighteenth century England was a relatively dark place, especially during the winter months. Lighting;gas
Great Britain;gas lighting
Winsor, Frederick Albert
Murdock, William
[kw]Britain Adopts Gas Lighting (1802)
[kw]Adopts Gas Lighting, Britain (1802)
[kw]Gas Lighting, Britain Adopts (1802)
[kw]Lighting, Britain Adopts Gas (1802)
Great Britain;gas lighting
Winsor, Frederick Albert
Murdock, William
[g]Great Britain;1802: Britain Adopts Gas Lighting[0110]
[c]Inventions;1802: Britain Adopts Gas Lighting[0110]
[c]Science and technology;1802: Britain Adopts Gas Lighting[0110]
[c]Business and labor;1802: Britain Adopts Gas Lighting[0110]
Lebon, Philippe

There are several competing claims for the discovery that flammable gases could be used for illumination, but the first person to demonstrate a prototype with commercial potential is usually considered to be William Murdock, an engineer employed by James Watt and Matthew Boulton in their steam engine manufactory in Birmingham, England. While setting up a satellite plant in Cornwall, Cornwall Murdock devised a method of collecting waste gas from coke production and burning it in cylindrical nozzles modeled on a contemporary whale-oil lamp. With Watt’s backing, he built a gas lighting system on a much larger scale at the company’s Soho works in Birmingham. After being used for festive illuminations celebrating the Peace of Amiens Amiens, Treaty of (1802) in 1802, his system was expanded to light the factory itself in 1804. Murdock also designed a gas-generating system and persuaded a large Textile industry;lighting in textile mill in Manchester to convert to gas lighting. In 1806, the first year of operation, savings in labor and materials cut lighting costs by 50 percent.

At about the same time, a German-born inventor and entrepreneur, Frederick Albert Winsor Winsor, Frederick Albert , began promoting gas lighting in London. London;gas lighting Winsor had seen French inventor Philippe Lebon Lebon, Philippe demonstrate his “thermolampe” to curious crowds in Paris in 1798, and he was impressed by its potential. Failing to find commercial backers on the Continent, he traveled to England, where he met with a better reception. With whale oil becoming scarce and expensive because of the resumption of war between France and England, substitutes looked more attractive. In 1804, Winsor obtained a patent for a gas generating apparatus and set up shop in fashionable Pall Mall. He conducted public lectures and demonstrations and distributed advertisements making extravagant claims.

Winsor’s gaslights illuminated Carleton House, home of the Prince of Wales, for the king’s birthday in 1807. Shortly afterward he issued a prospectus for the New Patriotic Imperial and National Light and Heat Company, touting coal gas as the key to reviving a faltering economy, eliminating crime, and winning the war with Napoleon. Few people were willing to invest in so speculative a venture, so Winsor approached Parliament for a special charter. After three years of heated debate, against opposition from Watt and Murdoch, ridicule from luminaries such as inventor Sir Humphry Davy Davy, Sir Humphry , and the protests of the whaling industry, Parliament finally granted a charter for the more modest London Gas Light and Coke Company in 1810.

Winsor’s approach, which ultimately edged out Murdoch’s earlier claim, relied on centralized generation of gas and distribution through pipelines to numerous customers, rather than on the sale of generators to individual factories. Gas lighting expanded rapidly. Westminster Bridge, London London;gas lighting , was lit for New Year’s Day, 1813, and the main thoroughfares of Westminster soon followed. By 1815 there were twenty-six miles of gas pipeline in London. Other British metropolitan areas followed suit. Industrial Manchester established the first municipal gas generating system in 1819. Drury Lane Theatre Theater;lighting
Theater;English installed gas lighting in 1817 and St. Paul’s Cathedral installed it in 1822. In the United States, several cities had gas generating plants by 1820.

As a lighting source, gas was hardly the panacea Winsor envisioned. A mixture of hydrogen, methane and short-chain hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide, coal gas is toxic and explosive. Explosives;coal gas There were numerous accidents in gas lighting’s early days. Inadequate pipes cobbled together from war surplus gun barrels and fixtures installed by untrained workers led to frequent leaks and explosions. Fluctuating pressure caused flames to go out, and asphyxiation from carbon monoxide poisoning followed.

Hydrogen sulfide, which gives gas its characteristic rotten egg odor, produces sulfur dioxide upon combustion. Gas suppliers left in the hydrogen sulfide during the purifying process to reduce the danger from gas leaks, but the result was the generation of a corrosive pollutant in the indoor environment. Relative to the amount of light produced, gas generates more heat and depletes oxygen more rapidly than candles or whale oil, which continued to be used for most domestic lighting until kerosene Kerosene became available around 1860.

Although gas itself was comparatively inexpensive, only the well-to-do could afford the costs of installation. Because pollutants from gas burning tarnished silver and rotted cloth, people with fine furnishings avoided it. The prince regent solved this dilemma by illuminating the grandly furnished public rooms of Brighton Palace with gaslights outside the windows. Gas’s great virtue was its convenience. After it is turned on, a gas fixture remains lit without requiring periodic attention. This made it ideal for use in streetlights, for lighting large halls with high ceilings, and for factories.

Darkness was no longer a constraint on commerce and industry, proving a great boon for factory owners, whose machines no longer stood idle during long winter nights. Working after sundown contributed to the competitive advantage of manufacturers in England and New England. The laboring population, however, generally experienced a decline in the quality of their lives, as increased hours at work rarely translated into more remuneration, and gaslight created a stifling, unhealthful atmosphere in factories. Illumination, moreover, ended at the factory door—poor neighborhoods had no streetlights, and even tallow candles were a luxury in a working-class household.


The rapid social and technological changes of the first two decades of the nineteenth century make almost impossible any assessments of the contributions, either positive or negative, that any one technological innovation made toward the whole.

On the positive side, the introduction of effective streetlights in urban areas is widely cited as having cut crime. A saying of the time was that “a streetlight is as good as a policeman.” People felt safer being abroad at night. It was no longer necessary to schedule public lectures to coincide with a full moon, and shops and places of entertainment had a larger evening clientele. The crime rate in British cities fell considerably between 1815 and 1830. Claiming credit were the proponents of street lighting, those advocating measures favoring industry (and therefore full employment), those who instituted a regular police force in London, and those who revised a chaotic draconian penal code. Likewise, the differential in crime rates between poor and well-to-do neighborhoods, which persists in urban areas into the twenty-first century, cannot be ascribed entirely to superior illumination.

As a source of pollution the gas industry must rank near the top. A gas plant burned coal to fuel the refining process, consumed coal to produce its product, and spewed smoke, slag, and water used to remove some of the impurities. The toxic gas itself escaped during all phases of the delivery process, and the end product created further pollution when consumed. The nature of the product and delivery system dictated that gas plants be located near residential and commercial centers, though not in immediate proximity to the people who benefited from its consumption. Working conditions in gas plants were hellish—indeed, they helped inspire Gustave Doré’s celebrated illustrations (1861) for Dante’s Inferno.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, gas was the usual fuel for lighting streets, theaters, large public buildings, and factories. The introduction of the incandescent gas mantle about 1880 greatly increased the intensity of illumination. The high heat to light output ratio of coal gas, coupled with its convenience, made it an ideal fuel for cooking; many urban middle-class homes had gas in their kitchens and candles in their parlors.

Domestic lighting after 1850 benefited from the rise of the petroleum Petroleum;and lighting[Lighting] industry in the United States. Kerosene Kerosene —cheap, nonexplosive, and odorless compared to most alternatives—became the lighting fuel of choice for both urban and rural homes across the class spectrum. The switch to fossil fuels—first coal, then oil—occurred at a time when rapid population growth and reliance on steam power for transportation drastically curtailed the availability of animal fats. Had the technology for producing light from fossil fuels not been in place during the mid-nineteenth century, society would have found itself in the dark.

Further Reading

  • Bowers, B. Lengthening the Day: A History of Lighting Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A good source for the practical aspects of manufacturing and supplying gas, and for the interplay of various technologies before the adoption of electricity.
  • Dillon, Maureen. Artificial Sunshine: A Social History of Domestic Lighting. London: National Trust, 2002. Vividly describes lighting as a social phenomenon. Copiously illustrated.
  • Matthew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Has detailed entries on Frederick Albert Winsor, William Murdock, Matthew Boulton, and James Watt. An invaluable source for biographies of obscure British historical personages.
  • Williams, Trevor I. A History of the British Gas Industry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. Discusses the foundation of the London Gas Light and Coke Company, with an emphasis on its business aspects.

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Great Britain;gas lighting
Winsor, Frederick Albert
Murdock, William