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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Boulton and Watt

If gas lighting was to become a reality, development work was needed to take the results of these experiments and make them work. That would mean money and resources. Histories of the industry usually describe the contribution of William Murdoch who is said to have experimented with gas lighting in Cornwall in 1792.

Murdoch was an employee of the Boulton and Watt partnership based in Birmingham. They made factory equipment - steam engines - and the provision of lighting equipment may have been seen as a logical extension of this work. Following a report on Lebon's lighting scheme in France they seem to have encouraged the development of suitable lighting equipment using a team of their engineers based at the Birmingham Soho works.

Boulton and Watt began to supply the new equipment to customers who wanted lighting in their factories. Thus the first functioning gas making plant was installed to light individual industrial buildings - not for public supply.

In London, one of the earliest gas lighting schemes may have been that which Boulton and Watt's team installed at Huddart's Limehouse Ropeworks in Whitehorse Lane, Stepney, before 1811. They had already supplied a steam engine to Huddart and the drawings for the gas making plant to be installed there show the retort houses integrated into the same buildings as the steam equipment.

Thus the practical development of working gas making equipment was undertaken by a major manufacturer who could afford to invest and who had potential customers in waiting.


Papers in the Boulton and Watt archive make it quite clear that a number of their employees worked on the development of gas lighting equipment.33 This team was advised on the scientific aspects of coal gas by a chemical consultant William Henry. Henry came from Manchester and was a friend of John Dalton, who developed the atomic theory. It has even been said that Henry's chemical skills were 'probably decisive' in 'the gestation of the atomic theory'.

The relationship between Henry and Boulton and Watt demonstrates the links between an emerging body of chemical theory and the development of one of the main ‘markers’ of the industrial revolution ‑that is, commercially viable gas lighting equipment. Henry's professional advice on setting up the first gas making plant was enormously important. Gas making is fundamentally a chemical process and its' development needed the type of input which only a major chemical researcher could provide.

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