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gas industry

gas industry. Before the commercial development in the early 19th cent., many observations had been made on the illuminating power of natural gas occurring in coal seams, the first recorded being that of the Revd John Clayton of Wigan, whose discovery that an inflammable gas evolved when coal was heated was reported to the Royal Society in 1739. Later, George Dixon, a coal-master in Co. Durham, experimented c.1760 with an apparatus designed to produce gas from coal.

William Murdock, an engineer associated with James Watt, made a significant breakthrough in large-scale production with two important innovations, which allowed coal gas to pass directly into pipes rather than escape, and, by passing the gas through water, washed out suspended matter, such as tar particles, as well as water-soluble components like ammonia. While his research earned him the Rumford medal of the Royal Society, he did not patent his invention, and thus made little direct profit from the expansion of gas lighting. However, his firm, Boulton & Watt, provided a notable display of gas lighting for the national celebrations which accompanied the peace of Paris in 1814.

Meantime others had been less tardy in exploiting the potential of gas lighting. Samuel Clegg, a student of John Dalton's and an associate of Murdock, developed horizontal retorts, the lime purification process, the hydraulic main, the gasometer or gasholder, and other standard equipment found in 19th-cent. gasworks. Clegg installed gas-making plant and lighting in factories and mills and his son wrote a treatise on the manufacture and distribution of coal gas (1841). A German, F. A. Winsor, gave popular demonstrations of gas lighting in the Lyceum theatre, London, in 1804, and his company provided lighting for Pall Mall in 1807. His ‘Gas Light and Coke Company’ was formed 1810–12 and within a few years gas lighting was a feature of many London streets.

Despite problems of storing large volumes of gas, its distribution through pipes at high pressure, and the danger of explosions, gas manufacture and lighting spread rapidly to other towns and cities during the 1820s and 1830s. Lamp-lighters, or ‘leeries’, immortalized in a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, became as familiar figures on the streets of Victorian Britain as constables or ‘Peelers’.

The incandescent gas mantle, developed by the German von Welsbach in 1885, greatly increased illuminating power and for a time helped fight off competition from electric lighting. Although electric lighting and power began to make greater inroads into the market after the First World War, distribution problems prior to the development of the national grid meant that gas remained important for lighting and heating, and was only beginning to be seriously challenged in the inter-war period, and in some remoter areas much later.

Following successful exploration and discovery in the late 1960s, natural gas from the North Sea began to be tapped commercially and distribution was rapidly extended nationally, for both industrial and domestic purposes. The last town gasworks using the traditional technology closed in the 1970s.

Ian Donnachie

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