Scottish inventor William Murdock was a pioneer in the use of coal gas for lighting and made significant advances in the use of steam power. He was one of the first people in the world to use coal gas for lighting his home, and his invention of this technology was a very important step in helping people to light their homes, workplaces, and streets after dark.
William Murdock was born in Scotland in 1754. Little is known of his childhood, but it is known that, at age 23, he joined the engineering firm owned by James Watt (1736-1819) and Matthew Boulton (1728-1809). Two years later, in 1779, he helped supervise the construction of one of Watt's first steam engines, and by 1784 he was experimenting with an oscillating steam engine, the first of its kind built.
Murdock's experiments continued, and he built a steam-powered carriage in 1786, although this was ultimately unsuccessful. It did, however, help introduce ideas later used to develop the steam locomotive.
Murdock made other devices that eventually found their way into industry and transportation. Chief among them was the "sun and planet" gear, which allows a reciprocating steam engine (that is, one that simply moves a plunger back and forth) to turn a wheel in a circular motion. This was widely used for decades until a good rotary engine was developed to take its place. However, it still finds many uses and may be one of Murdock's most important inventions. Murdock also worked to find uses for compressed air and devised a gun powered by steam in the early 1800s.
In spite of his developments noted above, Murdock was best known for his discovery of a process to distill coal, forming "coal gas" that produced a fine white flame when burned. Murdock did much of the experimental work in this area on his own, carrying out many experiments in his home. Finally, in 1792 he succeeded in lighting his own home with coal gas. He was soon also able to light his offices.
Returning to Birmingham, where he had first worked with Boulton and Watt, Murdock continued his work with coal gas, primarily looking for more-effective and cost-effective ways to generate, store, and purify it. Although it took some time, Murdock's coal gas was eventually used for public and private lighting throughout Europe, America, and elsewhere in the world.
Murdock retired in 1830 at the age of 76. He had spent the majority of his life helping to design the machines and processes that helped power the Industrial Revolution. Thanks in part to his work, the stage was set for development of the locomotive, which was the most significant advance in land transportation since the time of the Romans, or earlier. And thanks to his pioneering work with coal gas, people began the process, still continuing, of claiming the night for more than simply sleeping. Before the advent of artificial lighting, little could be done by most people after dark because of the relative lack of lighting and the poor light produced by fires. Murdock helped to change that, and until the introduction of electric lights in 1879, a century later, no better technology was found.
William Murdock died in Birmingham, England, in 1839 at the age of 85.
P. ANDREW KARAM