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The Agricultural Revolution Index

Introduction to the Agricultural Revolution

The Industrial Revolution Index

Introduction to the First Industrial Revolution

The Second Industrial Revolution Index

Electricity and Electric Power
Sir Humphry Davy
Michael Faraday
Thomas Edison
Sir Joseph Wilson Swan
The Development of Communications
Samuel Breese Morse
Guglielmo Marconi
Urbanisation and Public Transport
The Motor Industry
The Development of Flight
The Industrial Revolution and Warfare

History Chapters Main Index



Gas was the first of the new fuels to be produced. Gas began life as a by-product of coke manufacture, since coke was increasingly in demand to fuel the iron industry.

"Leon", the first gaslight in Paris   Shirley Burchill

""Leon", the first gaslight in Paris © Shirley Burchill



William Murdock (1754 - 1839)

Bust of William Murdock

Bust of William Murdock

William Murdock was a Scottish engineer who moved to Birmingham in 1777 to work with Matthew Boulton and James Watt in their Soho Manufactory. In 1779, Murdock was sent to Cornwall to supervise the fitting of Watt steam engines in tin mines in the area. It was during this visit to Cornwall, whilst living in the town of Redruth, that Murdock first experimented with coal gas for use as a fuel. In 1792 he used the gas to light his home and his office. Murdock returned to Birmingham in 1799 where he continued to experiment with gas lighting. In 1802 he lighted the outside of the Soho works. By 1804 he had installed over nine hundred gas lights in local cotton mills.

A German businessman, Frederick Albert Winson, saw the potential of Murdock's work and, in 1804, he obtained a patent to manufacture coal gas. By 1807, Winson and Partners, the first gas company, had installed gas street lighting in Pall Mall, London.

William Murdock is considered to be the "Father of the Gas Industry". In 1808 he was invited to the Royal Society to present his paper on gas lighting. However, Murdock was also an extremely able engineer. He designed the oscillating engine in 1784 and he is thought to be the 'brains' behind the 'Sun and Planet' steam engine.

In 1786 Murdock designed and built an unsuccessful prototype road locomotive, much to the annoyance of James Watt who thought that steam transport would never become popular. Murdock also experimented with compressed air and he designed a steam gun in 1803!







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The Second Industrial Revolution


Street lights in Prague   Shirley Burchill

Street lights in Prague © Shirley Burchill


By the middle of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had produced great changes in Britain and in Europe. The major driving force of the period was steam power. Steam technology was highly developed and, with the help of the newly-invented precision lathe, larger, more efficient engines were produced. These engines used much less coal to fuel them.

Whilst coal was still the most widely used fuel, other forms of energy were being investigated and developed. Gas, electricity and, eventually, oil were soon to compete with coal. The discovery of these new fuels gave rise to new industries which, for the first time, were based on science rather than on engineering.



Coal gas, as it was called, was first used in the Soho steam engine works of Boulton and Watt. Their manager, William Murdock, began experimenting with coal gas and, in 1782, he built a small factory to provide gas lighting for the works. One of the employees at the Soho works, Samuel Clegg, saw the potential of this new form of lighting. Clegg left his job to set up his own gas lighting business, the Gas Lighting and Coke Company. Gradually his business expanded as gas lighting was installed in many mills, factories and houses.

By 1823, over fifty towns and cities were lit by gas. It proved to be a very economical method of lighting, costing up to 75% less than lighting produced by oil lamps or candles. In 1859, gas lighting was to be found all over Britain. Over 1000 gas works had sprung up to meet the demand for the new fuel. Between 1865 and 1885, there was a boom in investment in gas, which reduced its cost even further.

The economic effect of gas lighting was to allow factories to work much longer hours. This was particularly important during the winter months when nights were longer. Factories could even work continuously over 24 hours, so increasing production. The brighter lighting which gas provided allowed people to read more easily and for longer. This stimulated literacy and learning, so speeding up the Industrial Revolution. Towns became much safer places to travel around because gas lamps were installed in the street, so reducing crime rates.

During the manufacture of coal gas a number of other chemicals were produced. These by-products included ammonia, naptha and coal tar which formed the basis of the chemical industry. Ammonia, when combined with other chemicals, was found to be a good artificial fertilizer. Mackintosh discovered that naptha was able to dissolve rubber. This discovery led to the creation of the famous waterproof overcoat that came to bear his name.

At first, coal tar seemed to be a rather smelly by-product with little practical use. Later, however, it was found that when coal tar was combined with road-stone grit, it made an excellent sealed layer to top road surfaces. This layer became known as tarmacadam. It transformed the dusty lanes of the 19th century into the black, smooth roads that we use today. Coal tar also became the center of a new industry when it was discovered that artificial dyes could be extracted from it. These were the first successful artificial dyes and they were in great demand.

By the end of the century, gas lighting was found in most shops, houses, factories and schools throughout Britain and Europe. This cheap form of lighting was soon to suffer severe competition from the newly invented, but much more costly (and dimmer), electric light.


Additional Information about Gas

Today the gas we use for cooking and heating comes mainly in a form called natural gas. Natural gas is found in large deposits beneath the earth and has to be extracted by drilling, using the same technique as for oil drilling. In northern Europe, a great deal of gas is pumped from beneath the seas around the coast of Britain.

However, during the Industrial Revolution, gas was produced from coal during the process of converting coal to coke. (Coke was extensively used for iron and steel manufacture). Once the coal gas was produced, it had to be stored in a gasometer, a sort of gas reservoir. The gas was pumped through water into a large, hollow steel dome. The dome sat in a deep, concrete well which was filled with water. The gas could then be stored under pressure until it was required for use in lighting and cooking.


An old-style gas cooker

An old-style gas cooker © Shirley Burchill


The first gas lights were just jets of gas with the light giving a yellow glow (a bit like the flame from a Bunsen burner). In 1885 an Australian, C. Auger, patented the first gas mantle. This took the form of a cotton mesh impregnated with chemicals. When gas was passed through the mesh and lit, the cotton carbonised but the chemicals made the gas glow with a bright, greenish-white flame. The gas light was enclosed in a glass tube, both to protect the delicate mantle and to speed up the flow of air, so giving a brighter light. This type of light was in use in homes, shops and factories up to the end of the 19th century. Gas lighting was largely replaced by electricity after World War I.


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