Before electricity became sufficiently widespread and economical to allow for general public use, gas was the most popular means of lighting in cities and suburbs. Early gas lights had to be lit manually but soon gas lights could light themselves.
Public illumination preceded the discovery and adoption of gaslight by centuries. In 1417, Sir Henry Barton, Mayor of London, ordained "lanterns with lights to be hanged out on the winter evenings between Hallowtide and Candlemasse." Paris was first lit by an order issued in 1524; and in the beginning of the 16th century the inhabitants were ordered to keep lights burning in the windows of all houses that faced the streets. In 1668, when some regulations were made for improving the streets of London, the residents were reminded to hang out their lanterns at the usual time; and in 1690 an order was issued to hang out a light, or lamp, every night as soon as it was dark, from Michaelmas to Christmas. By an act of the common council in 1716, all housekeepers, whose houses faced any street, lane, or passage, were required to hang out, every dark night, one or more lights, to burn from six to eleven o'clock, under the penalty of one shilling as a fine for failing to do so.
Coal and natural gases were known originally for their adverse effects rather than their useful qualities. In Coal Mining miners described two types, called the choke damp and the fire damp. In 1667 a paper detailing the effects of these was entitled, "A Description of a Well and Earth in Lancashire taking Fire, by a Candle approaching to it. Imparted by Thomas Shirley, Esq an eye-witness."
Dr. Stephen Hales was the first person who procured a flammable fluid from the actual distillation of coal. His experiments with this object are related in the first volume of his Vegetable Statics, published in 1726. From the distillation of "one hundred and fifty-eight grains [10.2 g] of Newcastle coal, he states that he obtained one hundred and eighty cubic inches [2.9 L] of air, which weighed fifty-one grains [3.3 g], being nearly one third of the whole." These results seemed to have passed without notice for several years.
In the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1733, some properties of coal-gas are detailed in a paper called, "An Account of the Damp Air in a Coal-pit of Sir James Lowther, sunk within Twenty Yards of the Sea." This paper, contained some striking facts relating to the flammability and other properties of coal gas.
The principal properties of coal-gas were demonstrated to different members of the Royal Society, and showed that after keeping the gas some time, it still retained its flammability. Remarkably, the scientists of the time still saw no useful purpose for it.
Dr. John Clayton, in an extract from a letter in the "Philosophical Transactions" for 1735, calls gas the "spirit" of coal; and discovered its flammability by an accident. This "spirit" happened to catch fire, by coming in contact with a candle, as it escaped from a fracture in one of his distillatory vessels. By preserving the gas in bladders, he entertained his friends, by exhibiting its flammability.
A "thermolampe" using gas distilled from wood was patented in 1799, whilst German inventor Friedrich Winzer (Frederick Albert Winsor) was the first person to patent coal gas lighting in 1804.
In 1801, Phillipe Lebon of Paris had also used gas lights to illuminate his house and gardens, and was considering how to light all of Paris. In 1820, Paris adopted gas street lighting.
In 1804, Dr. Henry delivered a course of lectures on chemistry, at Manchester, in which he showed the mode of producing gas from coal, and the facility and advantage of its use. Dr. Henry analyzed the composition and investigated the properties of carburetted hydrogen gas. His experiments were numerous and accurate and made upon a variety of substances; having obtained the gas from wood, peat, different kinds of coal, oil, wax, &c. he quantified the intensity of the light from each source.
Josiah Pemberton, a tireless inventor, had for some time been experimenting on the nature of gas. A resident of Birmingham, his attention was probably roused by the exhibition at Soho. About 1806, he exhibited gas-lights in a variety of forms and with great brilliance, at the front of his manufactory in Birmingham. In 1808 he constructed an apparatus, applicable to several uses, for Benjamin Cooke, a manufacturer of brass tubes, gilt toys, and other articles.
In 1808, Murdoch presented to the Royal Society a paper entitled "Account of the Application of Gas from Coal to Economical Purposes" an account of his successful application of coal gas to lighting the extensive establishment of Messrs. Phillips and Lea. For this paper he was awarded Count Rumford's gold medal. Murdoch's statements threw great light on the comparative advantage of gas and candles and contained much useful information on the expenses of production and management.
The first public street lighting with gas took place in Pall Mall, London on January 28, 1807. In 1812, Parliament granted a charter to the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company, and the first gas company in the world came into being. A few years later, on December 31, 1813, the Westminster Bridge was lit by gas.
As artificial lighting became more common, desire grew for it to become readily available to the public. This was in part because towns became much safer places to travel around after gas lamps were installed in the streets, reducing crime rates. In 1809, accordingly, the first application was made to parliament to incorporate a company in order to accelerate the process, but failed to pass. In 1810, however, the application was renewed by the same parties, and though some opposition was encountered and considerable expense incurred, the bill passed, but not without great alterations; and the London and Westminster Chartered Gas-Light and Coke Company was established. By 1816, Samuel Clegg obtained the patent for his horizontal rotative retort, his apparatus for purifying coal gas with cream of lime, and for his rotative gas meter and self-acting governor.
Following this success, gas lighting spread to other countries. The use of gas lights in Rembrandt Peale's Museum in Baltimore in 1816 was a great success. Baltimore was the first American city with gas streetlights, provided by Peale's Gas Light Company of Baltimore.
The first private residence in the US illuminated by gas was that of William Henry, a coppersmith, at 200 Lombard Street, Philadelphia, Pa.
Among the economic impacts of gas lighting was much longer work hours in factories. This was particularly important in Great Britain during the winter months when nights were significantly longer. Factories could even work continuously over 24 hours, resulting in increased production.
In 1817, at the three stations of the Chartered Gas Company, 25 chaldrons (24 m³) of coal were carbonized daily, producing 300,000 cubic feet (8,500 m³) of gas. This supplied gas lamps equal to 75,000 Argand lamps each yielding the light of six candles. At the City Gas Works, in Dorset Street, Blackfriars, three chaldrons of coal were carbonized each day, providing the gas equivalent of 9,000 Argand lamps. So 28 chaldrons of coal were carbonized daily, and 84,000 lights supplied by those two companies only.
At this period the principal difficulty in gas manufacture was purification. Mr. D. Wilson, of Dublin, patented a method for purifying coal gas by means of the chemical action of ammoniacal gas. Another plan was devised by Mr. Reuben Phillips, of Exeter, who patented the purification of coal gas by the use of dry lime. Mr. G. Holworthy, in 1818, patented a method of purifying it by causing the gas, in a highly-condensed state, to pass through iron retorts heated to a dark red.
By 1823 numerous towns and cities throughout Britain were lit by gas. Gaslight cost up to 75% less than oil lamps or candles, which helped to accelerate its development and deployment. By 1859, gas lighting was to be found all over Britain and about a thousand gas works had sprung up to meet the demand for the new fuel. The brighter lighting which gas provided allowed people to read more easily and for longer. This helped to stimulate literacy and learning, speeding up the second Industrial Revolution.
Oil gas appeared in the field as a rival of coal gas. In 1815, John Taylor patented an apparatus for the decomposition of "oil"and other animal substances. Public attention was attracted to "oil gas" by the display of the patent apparatus at Apothecary's Hall, by Messrs. Taylor and Martineau.
Gas lighting has not disappeared completely from cities. Cities that retain gas lighting now often find that it provides a pleasing nostalgic effect. Similarly, gas lighting is also seeing a resurgence in the luxury home market for those in search of historical accuracy.
The largest gas lighting network in Europe is probably that of Berlin with about 44,000 lamps. Quite a few streets in central London, the Royal Parks and the exterior of Buckingham Palace remain gaslit. The Park Estate in Nottingham retains much of its original character, including the original gas lighting network.
South Orange, New Jersey has adopted the gaslight as the symbol of the town, and uses them on nearly all streets. Several other towns in New Jersey also retain gas lighting: Glen Ridge, Palmyra, Riverton, and some parts of Orange.
Many gas utility companies will still quote a fixed periodic rate for a customer-maintained gas lamp and homeowners still utilize such devices. However, the high cost of natural gas lighting at least partly explains why a large number of older gas lamps have been converted to electricity.
The most popular gas lighting fixtures today are made from copper, a sustainable and durable metal that ages and patinas to protect itself from the elements. Gas Lights today are also used with electronic ignition systems that allow the lights to be controlled from an ordinary light switch. With energy conservation a pressing issue today, these systems can also allow gas lights to be placed on a timer or photocell so that they are not running continuously, only when needed. Today gas lights are widely used for creating ambiance and to accentuate a properties design.
See also the Gaslight disambiguation page.