Search This Blog

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Oil Gas Dispute

Increasingly the early gas companies employed scientists as consultants and this sometimes meant that they were required to give evidence in court for one side or another in disputes. In the 1820s a series of enquiries, all in some way connected with the manufacture of gas from oil, rather than coal, brought gas manufacture into the realms of scientific dispute.

It was realised that there was a great deal of money to be made out of gas lighting - and money to be lost by those who had invested in existing oil lighting technology. Increasingly companies were prepared to risk a great deal to get the legal rights to provide lighting.

In 1805 William Henry had published a paper in the Journal of Natural Philosophy which cited the existence of "light carburetted hydrogen" for which he "relied on the sole authority of Mr. Dalton". The involvement of John Dalton must be noted here. Although he is well known for his work on the atomic theory, Dalton was, of course, based in Manchester and had undertaken theoretical work on gases. He knew William Henry well and they had worked together and seem to have supported each other's research findings. Dalton is also said to have known and taught Samuel Clegg and, if so, much of the technology as well as the theory of gas manufacture must have influenced by him.

William Henry’s 1805 paper had also drawn a parallel between the ‘light carburetted hydrogen’ and the "fire damp of coal mines." He followed this in 1808 with a paper to the Royal Society which attempted to explain his analytical methods and apparatus and their application to gas made from coal. In 1820 William Brande, by then Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, challenged his findings.

Brande’s apparatus for research into gas at Apothecaries' Hall and at the Royal Institution has already been noted. His paper, also to the Royal Society, was in effect an evaluation of the "cost benefit” of various coals compared with other substances for making gas. Brande was in a senior position, he was very young and probably concerned to consolidate his position. In his paper he seemed to be supporting the virtues of coal gas but by 1819 “however for reasons that are not clear" he had changed his views and was putting forward the cause of oil gas, pointing out that a process for making gas from oil was now available. Articles supporting oil gas were not only written by Brande: Congreve too said that oil gas was "less explosive, brighter burning, better smelling and less polluting".

In doing this Brande met with opprobrium from other scientists. In 1821 the position put forward by Brande was opposed by a contributor to the scientific press, writing from Derby, George Lowe. He said of Brande's article that "the chief object of this paper was to prove that no other gaseous compound of carbon and hydrogen exists but the one usually called olefiant gas". It was, he said, based on "material errors." Lowe was a young man, experimenting alone in the laboratory of his father’s brewery - his career, as one of the foremost gas engineers in the nineteenth century had not yet begun.

William Henry joined the debate and challenged Brande with a series of articles reviewing the progress of his research on coal and oil gases. He explained, in detail, that his "hypothetical conclusion coincides even more nearly with the facts ... while the opposite explanation is at variance with this general law of chemical union".

The background to this dispute is complex and culminated in the Oil Gas Enquiry of 1826. This had however been preceded by a series of court hearings about insurance claims following an explosion in a sugar refinery. This has some elements in common with the Oil Gas Enquiry in that it involved many of the same personnel and was concerned with the explosive potential of oil gas. An apparatus for heating sugar had been developed by Daniel Wilson and manufactured by Aaron Manby. Wilson has already been noted here in the account of the Aldgate Gas Company. He had gone to work for Manby at the Horsley Ironworks in Shropshire. At the same time he was developing a coal gas purification process and would eventually go to Paris where he founded the first effective Paris Gas Works - all of which is an illustration of how close the technologies and personnel were.

This trial, it has been said ‘made visible the members of an invisible college whose subject was the chemistry and chemical technology of oils’. It might be added that for many of them this included a study of coal and coal gases as well as coal oils. They included:

William Brande - whose interest has already been noted

John Thomas Cooper: Apothecary and chemical manufacturer. Lectured at the Russell Institution. He was later to act as a consultant to some of the London gas companies and chemical companies; he was involved in a very wide range of gas industry applications. Member Chemical Society.

Michael Faraday is, obviously, very well known but in 1826 his major work was still to come. As a consultant, he was involved with a very wide range of institutions, subjects and other chemists. Some work was for gas companies: e.g: the contamination of a japanned leather works adjacent to the Chartered Company's Peter Street Works. His contribution to the early gas industry has never really been evaluated.

Richard Phillips "lecturer on chemistry to the London Institution and editor of the Annals of Philosophy." Phillips involvement in the discussion on coal gas and its constituents was such that William Henry sent him a copy of his book on the subject. Gas company minute books contain many references to "Mr. Phillips" acting as a consultant on chemical matters (although some other "Mr. Phillips" were also active). Member Chemical Society.

Arthur Aikin Chemist who wrote the "chemistry" articles for Rees Cyclopedia and published a manual of chemistry. Gave evidence that he had distilled whale oil. Based, with his brother, at the Aldersgate dispensary. Member, Chemical Society.

William Allen, FRS: manufacturing chemist, Quaker philanthropist, medical scientist, lecturer at Guys Hospital.

J.Thomas Barry: Manufacturing chemist. Gave evidence on lead piping. Quaker and partner in Allen business.

John Bostock. Physician and lecturer at Guys Hospital. Expertise in water cleanliness. Employed by Taylor and Martineau to give demonstrations of oil gas to other chemists. Early subscriber to Royal College of Chemistry.

John Children, Chemist. Davy referenced his work on analysis of gases in 1815.[463]

H.Coxwell, Secretary to the Committee of Chemistry of the Society of Arts. An Aeronaut.

John Davy FRS. Sir Humphry's younger brother; army surgeon etc. Some correspondence from Davy appears in the scientific press at this time; sometimes defending others in relation to coal gas issues.

James Deville: Described as a "gas light manufacturer" with a business in the Strand. In 1835 a joint patentee for lamps with Alexander Gordon. Described a visit to Hull where he saw whale oil boiling (was this to the Hull Oil Gas Works.

Alexander Garden: chemist and partner of Accum. Had isolated naphthalene from coal oil.

John Ayrton Paris. Doctor with an interest in chemistry and biographer of Sir Humphrey Davy. Member Chemical Society.

Samuel Parkes: Chemist with a works in the Goswell Road and writer of Chemical textbooks.

Thomas Thomson. Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow University and editor of Annals of Philosophy with a record of publications involving theories of gases, including coal and oil gas.

The dispute moved to the gas industry public when the Taylors tried to promote an oil gas works for Westminster. At the resulting, Parliamentary Enquiry, many of these chemists, and some others, gave their views. The Oil Gas Enquiry looked at the polluting nature of coal gas, its comparative heat and efficiency, and compared it with that from fish (whale) oil. In both enquiries theories on gases, evolved by Henry, informed the background of much of the discussion

Evidence to the Oil Gas Enquiry, on behalf of the oil gas interests, was given by chemists working at the Royal Institution: Faraday, Brande and Richard Phillips. Evidence for coal gas was given by a group of Scottish chemists:

Adam Anderson: member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and lecturer at the Perth Academy. Invented a lime purifier for coal gas which was used at Perth Gas Works.

Andrew Fyfe, the younger: Doctor and future Professor of Chemistry at Aberdeen. Wrote and researched extensively on coal gas issues. Wrote Elementary Chemistry (1827). Member Chemical Society.

John Leslie. Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University. Had written on heat.

Evidence was given by London shopkeepers on the polluting and inefficient nature of coal gas, scientists were asked to validate this. Background questions were "what is coal gas?" "What is oil gas?" Richard Phillips answered "that I do not know excepting that it is made from oil and has the properties I have stated".

George Lowe answering the same question said that the chemical composition of coal or oil gas was then unknown "it is carbon and hydrogen in some sort of combination".

Towards the end of the Enquiry evidence, on behalf of the coal gas interests was given by John Dalton, whose work Brande had admitted not reading. He opposed the evidence of Faraday, Brande and Phillips, praised Lowe, and referred to his own work on "carburetted hydrogen gas in the definite proportions." He said "coal gas when purified consists of the gas which I call carburetted hydrogen.. super olifient gas" and "oil gas is much the same but in different parts".

The employment of scientists on different sides of a debate was to continue. William Henry himself had worked as a consultant to Boulton and Watt, - and as has been noted, his partisanship against Winsor was only too clear. Lowe went on to a pursue a distinguished career with the Chartered Company, who had recruited him on the basis of his paper in response to Brande. Many of the other chemists involved in these enquiries went on to act as consultants in a wide range of applications to the early London gas industry. In later disputes on methods of purification, some were asked to act as referees for a particular protagonist.

In his evidence to the Oil Gas Enquiry, George Lowe, had made the most telling point in demonstrating that work on coal gas purification was beginning to overcome the difficulties of smell. Continuing to make gas cleaner and to produce an effluent which was also clean was to be the next big challenge for the industry in which chemists were to be involved.

The London and Westminster Oil Gas Company failed to get their bill through Parliament and the hopes of establishing a viable oil gas industry collapsed with it. It was widely said that - despite the well advertised failings of the Bow Oil Gas Works - that the telling evidence had been Lowe’s which said in effect, that the coal gas industry was beginning to overcome its initial problems. That John Dalton endorsed him so wholeheartedly shows how the role of chemists in the gas industry was endorsed both by the industry itself and in government circles.

No comments:

Post a Comment