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Thursday, 6 August 2009

William Congreve

First of all there was William Congreve. His role in the early gas industry was ambivalent. He was partly a scientist, partly a politician, partly a government official, and partly a capitalist. Sir William Congreve is of course, best known for ‘rockets’ which were to revolutionise some aspects of warfare. He was however involved in numerous other inventions and developments - bank notes, canal locks, steam engines and clocks were some of them. He was also closely involved in the gas industry.

William Congreve was born in 1772, and soon after his father, also William Congreve, was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Military Repository at Woolwich and later became Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory. Congreve the Younger joined the staff at Woolwich in 1799 and in due course became Comptroller. The post, in effect, was concerned with the development of arms and explosives on behalf of the Government.

Congreve was certainly interested in the design of retorts, and must have known about secret experiments undertaken on charcoal for gunpowder undertaken in ‘cylinders’ at Waltham Abbey and Fernhurst in the 1790s. It might be guessed that his initial interest in gas was for its explosive qualities and for the possible use of carbonised coal in gunpowder - something which had been suggested by Winsor.

Congreve was involved with the Royal Society enquiry into safety at the Gas Light and Coke Company’s early works, noted above, and from then on worked closely with the industry - indeed it is entirely possible that they were well known to him already.

In 1814, in order to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon, Congreve arranged a grand celebration to be held in St.James’s Park. The Gas Light and Coke Company provided 20,000 burners to be lit for six or seven hours. The first tests were satisfactory and the spectacle was to take place in a pagoda, set on a bridge over the Serpentine - some of the gas issuing from ‘Griffin’s Heads’ at the side. Unfortunately it was set alight before the display started - either because the gas was not turned off, or because of Congreve’s fireworks - and two people were killed. Inevitably, this was reported in the press in a way that blamed the gas company.

Congreve’s enthusiasm however continued and in 1816 he accompanied the Archduke of Austria around the Peter Street works - asking at the same time for a model gasholder to be delivered to him at home.

Congreve’s interest was at this point that of a courtier and client of the Prince Regent, and of a concerned Government Official. He was clearly eager to give this new medium of light and heat as much publicity as possible. His role was to develop further in due course. As a scientist, himself he must have known of the work which was already being published in the scientific press of the day.

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