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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Oil Gas

There were some curiosities in the great world of gas manufacture. We tend to think of ‘town gas’ as having been made from coal. This was really only because coal was cheap and easy to get in bulk. In the earliest day of the gas industry - when gas lighting was ‘invented’ by Lebon - wood was sometimes used as a raw material and after that a number of industrialists began to develop gas made from oil. Oil had been used for street lighting for many years and an infrastructure for getting it existed. Oil came from whales hunted in the Arctic and Antarctic seas but also from more mundane sources - tallow imported from Russia, for instance. It was thus seen as expedient to produce gas from oil and use a raw material which was readily available.

Oil Gas has been mentioned several times before here - in particular about the gas works at Hawes soap works. It is a subject, which, if properly written up, would take much more space than the whole of this book times ten. Gas for lighting has been made from all sorts of materials - not just from coal. In the early 1820s, a number of public supply gas works used oil as a raw material. The process was patented by John Taylor in 1815. Taylor is one of those Georgian engineers/entrepreneurs who set out to exploit, and change, the world in a variety of ways. He has been described as 'the foremost mining engineer in Europe' but he sometimes described himself as 'manufacturing chemist of Stratford'.

I have never been able to track down John's Stratford chemical works and the actual inventor of the oil gas process was his brother Philip, who lived, before 1824, in Bromley by Bow and was a chemist who had taken out a string of patents. There were several other brothers, all in key positions. Members of the Taylor family - John and Philip in particular - turn up in many episodes of early nineteenth century industrial history.

Any oil could be used for gas production and it was thus useful for scrap from the soap and other oil based industries, including oils and fats replaced by coal as the raw material for street lighting. The oil was liquefied and trickled down a hot metal pipe. The resulting gas was cooled and collected. It then went through a red hot iron pipe to a gas holder. Oil gas lacked the sulphur compounds found in coal gas, it thus was not thought to need purification and it was promoted as both safer and cleaner.

John Taylor and his partner, John Martineau had an engineering works at Whitecross Street just north of the City, moving to Winsor Ironworks in the City Road. They made a range of equipment, including steam engines, printing, and sugar refining machinery - chapters could be written about all of these. Oil gas making equipment was produced and supplied on a franchise basis - mainly in whaling areas, Edinburgh, Hull, Bristol, Liverpool, and so on. London was, of course, also a major whaling centre.

It is clear by the mid-1820s that a war had developed between the oil gas and coal gas interests. The Parliamentary Enquiry into the London and Westminster Oil Gas Bill brought out a glittering array of contemporary scientific opinion and a propaganda campaign outside the courtroom.

The oil gas enquiry had been foreshadowed a few years previously by an insurance claim in respect of an explosion in the east London sugar works of Severn and King. This had involved equipment designed by a Daniel Wilson who worked for Aaron Manby. The equipment involved a technique, which was very similar to that used in preparing oil gas. Wilson and Manby were both better known for their gas making equipment and later went to France where they were involved in the Paris gas industry. The same scientists gave evidence to both enquiries.

Oil Gas was presented as cleaner and safer than coal gas but the sub-text was about the economic interests of the suppliers of the raw material - coal or oil.

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