( Originally Published 1851 )
Daily habit has the effect of so soon familiarising objects to us, that we seldom pause to think how they have had a commencement. Gas light is now as familiar to us as the light of the sun or moon. It even illumines cellars and recesses, where the rays of either of these luminaries never pierce; and yet we have only to go back a very few years, when it was totally unknown, at least for all useful purposes. We recollect, when gas first began to be talked of, a gentleman observing, in a pretty large assemblage, that he would not be surprised, in the course of' a few years, to see the substance, as a common commodity, sold about the streets in centworths. The idea was received with that smile of incredulity which the vagaries of a fanciful mind often meet with; and yet those very few years had not expired when gas was actually conveyed through pipes into every street and dwelling, measured out by metres, and sold by the cubic foot.
The inflammable nature of coal-gas was first known from its dreadful explosive effects in mines, and received the name of fire or choke-damp. It was also observed to issue sometimes from crevices on the surface of the earth, when, on a lighted torch being presented to it, it would inflame, and continue to burn for a considerable period. In the year 1726, Stephen Hales procured an elastic air or gas from the distillation of common coal; and although some experiments of the inflammability of air so procured were occasionally made by individuals, and related in the scientific publications of the day, yet the subject excited little attention, and was ultimately thrown aside for a long period of years.
The most casual observer must have remarked, that, when a piece of coal becomes heated in the fire, it begins to swell; it then bursts at a particular part; a stream of air rushes out, and, coming in contact with the fire, ignites into a flame. If a common tobacco pipe is taken, a small piece of coal put into the bulb, the top of this cemented closely with moist clay, and the bulb then put into the fire, a stream of inflammable air will, in a short time, issue from the extremity of the pipe, and continue to do so till the whole gas the coal contains is exhausted. On examining the matter remaining, it will be found to be coke, or charcoal. Coal, then, by this mode of distillation, is found to consist of an inflammable gas, called carburetted hydrogen, and of charcoal. The extension of this long-known and simple experiment into a process of general usefulness, proceeded by gradual and oft-interrupted steps; and, as is usual in many important processes of the kind, the real inventor is involved in some degree of doubt. In the year 1792, a Mr. Murdoch, residing in Cornwall, England, made use of coal-gas for lighting up his house and offices; and in 1797, he again made a similar use of it at Old Cumnock, in Ayrshire. In 1802, he was residing at Messrs. Boulton and Watt's establishment, Soho, near Birmingham, where, under the combined talents of several ingenious engineers who were assembled at that highly liberal and celebrated seat of the arts and sciences, a splendid illumination of gas was exhibited on the occasion of the celebration of the peace of that year.
But some time previous to this public exhibition of gas illumination at Soho, it had been made use of in a similar manner at Paris, by a M. le Bon. In 1801, a friend of the gentlemen at Soho had written a letter from Paris, communicating the in-formation that a gentleman of that city had lighted up his house and gardens, and had it in contemplation to light the streets of Paris with gas from wood and coal.
Adopting the hint from this gentleman, a Mr. Winsor, a foreigner, came to London, in 1803, and publicly exhibited gas illumination, and explained its nature, and held out its numerous advantages, in a series of lectures at the Lyceum Theatre. Winsor was a mere quack, a man of little talent, but one of those active, bustling, indefatigable beings, well calculated to spread a new invention. For several years, under many failures and great disadvantages, he persevered in his projects, and, in 1807, lighted up a part of Pall Mall, which was the first instance of gas light being applied to such a purpose in Britain. Public attention was now roused; subscriptions were set a-going; various companies were formed; great improvements in the manufacture of the gas were introduced; its use-fulness was fairly established; and its adoption in manufactories and public places soon became universal. Gas light first made its appearance in Edinburgh in the spring of 1818, a company having been formed, and incorporated by act of Parliament, for that purpose. This establishment produces annually about 46,000,000 cubic feet of gas, consuming, for this purpose, about 4000 tons of cannel or parrot coal, besides 1000 tons of coal used in heating the retorts. The process of making gas is not complicated. The coal is put into large retorts of iron, and fire applied underneath. The gas, which is separated by this heat, then passes through an apparatus, where it is freed from an oily or tarry matter, which drops from it, and is afterwards purified by passing through lime water. It is then stored up into large reservoirs, or gasometers, from whence it is sent by pressure through pipes, laid under ground, to the various parts of the city.
Gas was introduced into the chief cities of the United States but a few years since, and now its use is daily increasing. In Boston it is no longer an object of wondering curiosity to the passers-by; although our readers can recollect the time when the few windows illuminated by its glare would at-tract crowds of spectators. The gas which lights London is calculated to consume 38,000 chaldrons of coals per annum, lighting 42,000 lamps in shops, houses, &c., and 7,500 street lamps. In 1830, the gas pipes in and round London were above 1,000 miles in length. Gas lights of half an inch in diameter, supply a light equal to 20 candles; of one inch in diameter, equal to 100; two inches, 420; three inches to 1000.
The kind of coal best suited for the distillation of gas, is that which contains in its composition the greatest proportion of bituminous or inflammable matter. It is called parrot or cannel coal, and is only found in particular situations. The Edinburgh Gas Works are supplied from the coal pits of the Marquis of Lothian, near Dalkeith. Gas bids fair almost entirely to supersede oil or tallow as articles of illumination. It produces ten times the quantity of light at an equal or inferior rate of expense, and it can be increased or modified at pleasure. Objections have been made to the deleterious nature of the gas on the lungs. There can be no doubt, but, if inhaled in any quantity for a very short period, it will produce instantaneous death, and even, in less quantities, headaches and uncomfortable sensations; but this applies to the unburnt gas. If sufficient care is taken that the whole be accurately consumed by flame, there is no greater danger or inconvenience in its combustion than in that of any other inflammable substance.
The illumination of our streets with gas has been said, and with justice, to be one of the best preservatives against crime. How different are the streets of the populous cities in Europe now to what they were in former days! In the year 1417, Sir Henry Barton, then Mayor of London, ordained " lanterns with lights to be hanged out in the win-ter evenings between Hallow tide and Candlemas." The city of Paris was first lighted in 1524; and in the beginning of the 16th century, the streets being infested with robbers, the inhabitants were ordered to keep lights burning in the windows of all such houses as fronted the streets. The aqueducts of the ancients, by which they brought water from a distance for the supply of their cities, were contrivances much talked of, and certainly some of them appear to have been stupendous undertakings; but how would an ancient stare if he were shown the streets of a modern city, laid bare to view with its water and gas pipes passing along, and ramifying in all directions, like the arteries and air-vessels of an animal body, circulating, as from a centre, moisture and heat to the most remote extremities !