Updated: May 15, 2022
"But it is especially at night that London should be seen: then, in the magic light of millions of gas-lamps, London is superb!"
Flora Tristan, London Journal, 1839
For much of human history, humankind has fought against the darkness of night. We have always been naturally afraid of the dark. We have been afraid of dangers, both real and imagined. Goblins and bogeymen, thieves and murderers all haunted the nighttime hours of our ancestors. For millennia, fire was the source of light that dispelled the dark. We gathered around campfires and hearths and made use of oil lamps and candles. In Ancient Greece and Rome, residents, those who could afford the oil, set out lamps in front of their houses to light the way along a dark street. People did venture out at night using lanterns or candles to guide them. In the Middle Ages, citizens in towns would pay groups of boys to lead them around at night. Even this was risky as the boys often had less than honorable intentions. One could travel by moonlight or starlight. Yet for lovers of all sorts, the night provided a cloak to their intimate trysts. For others, the night afforded them the safety of doing their business away from the watchful eyes of authority even when night watches were established.
In 1318, King Phillipe V ordered that a single candle lantern be placed outside the Grand Chatelet, one of the forts protecting central Paris's entrance. This may be the first instance of public street lighting. According to some sources, the mayor of London in 1417 ordered lanterns hung at night during the winter months. The citizens of Paris, starting in 1524, were instructed to leave a light in windows that faced the street. Louis IV set about stringing lanterns at intervals across the streets of Paris. The problem with these efforts at lighting up the nighttime was that they used either oil or candles. Both were expensive, and most people could ill afford either. As lights, they tended to be weak, inefficient and illuminated a minimal amount of area. Early in the 18th century, glass lanterns and reflectors helped brighten the nighttime world a bit, but they remained impractical on a large scale.
Enter William Murdoch. William Murdoch was born in Scotland in 1744. His father was a former artilleryman and was now a millwright in Ayrshire. Young Murdoch excelled at mathematics, and he had a natural bent towards practical mechanics. He learned to work wood and metal alongside his father. They were well known for having built a wooden horse with wheels that moved by using a crank. As a young man in his twenties, Murdoch went to work for James Watt and Matthew Boulton in their steam engine factory. He made an impression upon his employers by making improvements to the engines. Murdoch moved the gears so that the steam valve could be worked automatically. This led to him being assigned to Redruth, Cornwall, England, to oversee the construction and maintenance of engines used in the tin mines. While in Cornwall, Murdoch tinkered to improve the efficiency of the steam engine further, and he investigated the uses of compressed air. He developed a pneumatic messaging service and created England's first working model of a steam carriage - the forerunner of the railroad locomotive. (A Frenchman had already built one earlier in France.)
Around 1792, Murdoch began experimenting with various gases. He wanted to see which one produced the best light. He decided this was the gas given off by coal when heated. The flammability of coal gas had been established back in the late 17th century. In 1735, in front of the Royal Society, a Dr. John Clayton related how he burned a few lumps of coal, captured the vapors in animal bladders, and to the amusement of his onlookers, he set them alight. Until Murdoch, no one really attempted any practical application to burning coal gas.
The problem was finding an effective means of producing and capturing the gas. It is uncertain exactly how Murdoch perfected his method, but he started producing coal gas in a small retort, a vessel used in the laboratory to distill substances. The retort contained coal which he heated. He attached a three or four-foot iron tube to the retort. This piped the gases into an old gun barrel, and then Murdoch ignited the gas to produce light. From this success, Murdoch was able to light his entire house in Cornwall. In 1797, he illuminated the police headquarters in Manchester, England. And to the amazement of all, he lit the inside and outside of the Watts and Boulton factory in Birmingham. William Murdoch had demonstrated the practical use of gas as a source of light. The world would never be the same.
It would take others to take Murdoch's discovery and scale it upwards. By 1807, Moravian-born Frederich Winsor installed the first gas-powered public street lamps along Pall Mall in London. Soon afterward, Paris had their own gas street lamps, and they appeared in the United States. Baltimore was the first US city to have gas lighting. Winsor went on to help create the first commercial gas works - The Westminister Gas Light and Coke Company. By 1825, there were nearly 40,000 gas lights in London along almost 200 miles of city streets.
The advent of gas lighting transformed the life of towns and cities. It is no coincidence that modern metropolitan police forces' birth coincided with the growth of gas-powered street lights. Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that "A gaslight is the best nocturnal police." Gas lights burn brighter and illuminate a larger area. The need for lamplighters, as an occupation, grew. Lights still needed to be lit at night and turned off in the morning. Streets were safer, and more people were willing to venture out at night. There arose a whole new nighttime culture of theater, music, and dining. The natural rhythms of daylight no longer constrained people. Activities could be extended after the sun went down. Of course, businesses were quick to take advantage of this. With gas lights, workers could work well into the night and increase production. Gaslight brought with it the beginnings of light pollution. The dark skies that our ancestors knew would give way to the glow of urban areas. Recent scientific studies have shown that this industrial revolution in lighting has negatively impacted our natural sleep patterns.
Despite being cheaper to burn than oil or candle tallow, gas, at first, was for public use, the wealthy, and the upper-middle class. Gas companies were unregulated private industries, and few people could afford the cost of running gas pipes to their homes, and landlords were not willing to spend money upgrading their low-income properties. It would not be until the latter half of the 19th century before the majority of people had gas lighting within their homes. By then, Thomas Edison and others were already developing the electric incandescent light bulb. Yet, the transition from gas to electricity would be slow. Many places still used gas up to the 1930s. Gas would be used for lighting and would be used for heating and cooking as well.
For most people in the pre-industrial age, the night was a time to withdraw, when most activities ceased, and one retired to bed for sleep. The development of gaslighting in the early 19th century laid the foundation for our modern 24/7 lifestyles. For better or for worse.
Progressive Enlightenment: The Origins of the Gas Light Industry, 1780-1820: Leslie Tomory
Life Before Artificial Light: Jon Henley (The Guardian)
Illuminating Gaslight: American Oil and Gas Historical Society
Victorian Gas Works: Andrea Gibbons