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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The first gas made in London and Europe


By the end of the eighteenth century there was enough knowledge about gas from coal for a lighting scheme to be set up by anyone who was able to design suitable equipment. It is probable that many such attempts took place before 1800 but that they remain unknown because we have no information about them.

The following paragraphs describe an episode which happened in London in 1789. It is an example of the sort of experiments which were probably being undertaken in several places at the time.

A Pimlico resident, Mr. Hatchard, had been working on the production of 'fair copies' of the Earl of Dundonald's Parliamentary petition for his tar making patent. This patent specification contained enough information to give him the idea of trying to make a light out of coal gas. Hatchard had a neighbour, John Champion, one of the Bristol based brass manufacturing family. His son had experimented with tar manufacture but, unlike Dundonald, had failed.19 Champion and Hatchard set up a fireplace and chimney in the garden at Brewer Street, put an 'iron pot full of coals onto it', attached a 'tin cylinder and funnel' and lit the 'smoke'. This produced 'a column of bright flame feet high'

The Corporation of Trinity House was known to be looking for a reliable on‑site method of producing light for lighthouses and so Champion contacted them. A deputation of Elder Brethren visited to 'try the different experiments of lights ...... by means of vapour issuing from coal ' but they did not think the system was suitable.

Champion offered a half share in the process to Matthew Boulton, the Birmingham manufacturer, but it seems he was not interested either and Champion died soon after, aged eighty‑six.

No more was heard about this episode until Hatchard wrote to the press about it, for whatever reason, forty years later.24 By that time gas lighting was very much a reality.


It is important to remember that the development of gas for lighting was part of international scientific research and that many contributions to it came from outside England. Experiments on the manufacture of gas for lighting took place in other European countries and in America. Most histories of the gas industry mention researchers who worked, in particular, in France and Belgium, although there were many others.

One researcher of great interest was Phillipe Lebon. He was a French scientist with a practical interest in tars as well as gas for lighting. Another important contribution came from Belgium where Professor Minkelers developed gas for use in ballooning in military applications.

The probable reason why gas for lighting was first developed to a usable standard in England may be to do with the political situation in Europe. Lebon's work, for instance, ended when he was murdered in revolutionary Paris and a changing French government made a financial commitment to his scheme more unlikely.

It should be noted that most of these European experimenters used wood as their raw material for gas. Potential gas makers in England looked to coal as their source of fuel because it was widely available. Thus, because gas for lighting was finally developed in England, its raw material became coal. When British capitalists set up gas industries in countries where wood was readily available they took a technology based on coal with them.

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