History of Manufactured Gas

The history of manufactured gas, important for lighting, heating, and cooking purposes throughout most of the nineteenth century and the first half of the 20th century, began with the development of analytical and pneumatic chemistry in the eighteenth century. The manufacturing process typically consisted of the gasification of combustible materials, almost always coal, but also wood and oil. The coal was gasified by heating the coal in enclosed ovens with an oxygen-poor atmosphere. Gases, including hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and ethylene, were generated, all of which can be burnt for heating and lighting purposes. Coal gas, however, also contains significant quantities of sulfur and ammonia compounds, as well as heavy hydrocarbons, and so the gas needed to be purified before it could be used.

The first attempts to manufacture gas in a commercial way were made in the period 1795–1805 in France by Philippe Lebon, and in England by William Murdoch. Although precursors can be found, it was these two engineers who elaborated the technology with commercial applications in mind. Frederick Winsor was the key player behind the creation of the first gas utility, the London-based Gas Light and Coke Company, incorporated by royal charter in April 1812.

Many other manufactured gas utilities were founded first in England, and then in the rest of Europe and North America in the 1820s. The technology increased in scale. After a period of competition, the business model of the gas industry matured in monopolies, where a single company provided gas in a given zone. The ownership of the companies varied from outright municipal ownership, such as in Manchester, to completely private corporations, such as in London and most North American cities. Gas companies thrived during most of the nineteenth century, usually returning good profits to their shareholders, but were also the subject of many complaints over price.

In the second half of the 19th century, the gas industry diversified out of lighting and into heat and cooking. The threat from electrical light in the later 1870s and 1880s drove this trend strongly. The gas industry did not cede the lighting market to electricity immediately, as the invention of the Welsbach mantle in the late 1880s dramatically increased the luminosity of gas flames, and gas remained competitive with electricity. Other technological developments in the late nineteenth century include the use of water gas and machine stoking, although these were not universally adopted.

In the 1890s, pipelines from natural gas field in Texas and Oklahoma were built to Chicago and other cities, and natural gas was used to supplement manufactured gas supplies, eventually completely displacing it. Gas ceased to be manufactured in North America by 1966 (with the exception of Indianapolis and Honolulu), while it continued in Europe until the 1980s. Manufactured gas is again being evaluated as a fuel source, as energy utilities look towards coal gasification once again as a potentially cleaner way of generating power from coal.

Read more about History Of Manufactured Gas:  Legal, Regulatory, Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Gas Manufacture, Appliances and Machinery of The Historic Gas-works, Types of Historically Manufactured Gasses

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