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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Winsor - and the promotion of gas lighting in London

In 1804 Winsor took out his first patent

"18th May 1804 Patent 2764 Oven, stove, or apparatus for extracting inflammable air, oil, pitch, tar and acids from all kinds of fuel and reducing the same into coke and charcoal."

It is not difficult to see that this patent is rather more detailed than it need be if it were just for making lighting gas. Furthermore, the detailed specification describes how the gas can be conducted through ‘tubes of silk, paper, earth, wood, or metal to any distance’ and that gas could be applied to produce light and heat ‘in all public or private illuminations, lighthouses, telegraphs and making signals on steeples, hills, towers, mountains, houses, ships and seacoasts’ as well as producing by-products ‘charcoal for gunpowder, pitch and tar for preserving wood, wood or vegetable acid for making alum, vitriol and copperas, for dyeing and tanning, ammonia for many purposes, including purifying the foul pestilential infections of the air’. It is, however, rather more vague about how all of this was to be done.

At around the same time as the patent application Winsor began to publicise his ideas through public lectures. Elton noted as the earliest one advertised at the Lyceum Theatre in The Times of 21st September 1804. Soon another pamphlet appeared:

‘The superiority of the new patent coke, over the use of coals, in all family concerns, displayed every evening, at the large theatre, Lyceum, Strand .... addressed to all the enlightened inhabitants of London and the British Empire’. London.

This, his next publication, points to something very important about Winsor - which is that, unlike Boulton and Watt, his plans were not restricted to making gas for lighting. In fact at this stage it seems that coke, not gas, was his main aim - and coke remained important since as gas companies grew they all sold it and generally called themselves ‘gas light and coke’ companies. In 1804 ‘Coke’ as such had been known and used in manufacturing for well over a century but Winsor is here claiming an improved version. It sometimes appears as if Winsor's first intention was to start a coke company - to which 'gas' was added as an afterthought.

Nearly fourteen years later, in 1818, 'coke' was included as an entry in Abraham Rees' Encyclopaedia. Here Rees highlighted a patent held by 'Mr. Winsor ... for the manufacture of a

superior kind of coke' - showing that Winsor was seen as the purveyor of something new and exciting - coke. One of the surviving copies of this pamphlet also demonstrates Winsor’s wider knowledge of the subject - since it is inscribed to ‘The Rev. Watson, Bishop of Landaff with greatest respects from the Author’ - Dr.Watson was also Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge and an acknowledged authority on coke.

In 1804 Winsor was not the only person to produce something to be called 'patent coke'. He himself mentioned 'that celebrated haacter (sic) Doctor Clarke ' who set up a patent coke company in 1804.' He also described a 'phantasmagory celebrity', a Mr. Philipstall 'who subscribed to a patent coke company' Patent coke seems to have been a feature of the period. It was a way of identifying the product. Philipstall had apparently been demonstrating the use of coal gas for lighting in Dublin in 1804.

Winsor published two more pamphlets in 1804.

‘The New Patriotic Imperial and National Patent Company, for establishing sundry manufactories to make and extract for home consumption and exportation, coke, charcoal, ammonia, acids, oil, tar, chemical salts, &c. From all the combustibles in nature; and for applying the inflammable air obtained from the raw fuel to the purposes of heating, boiling, smelting, lighting, illuminating, &c’. Anon. London


2Account of the most ingenious and important national discovery for some ages. British Imperial patent light ovens and stoves, by which above l,000 per cent, are saved and gained in light, heat, and some valuable products for British manufactures, commerce and navigation as proved by an exact account of profit and loss affixed.. London

Perhaps in these titles too we can see that to use coal gas for lighting was not Winsor’s only idea - perhaps not even his main idea since lighting is buried in the titles among applications for the products.

In ‘Account of the most ingenious’ he describes a home based gas making plant for domestic use and makes some astonishing claims for the use of what might result from the distillation of coal. One of these claims was about what he described as ‘pyroligneous and coal acids’ – knowledge of such products of coal and wood carbonisation was still very rudimentary and it is not known how Winsor came to know about them. However, around this time, Charles Mackintosh was researching the use of related substances in Scotland - and it is possible that Winsor knew Mackintosh through the Royal Engineers, with whom Mackintosh was involved and whose base was near Winsor’s Woolwich home.

Winsor also discussed the use of gas making by products in tanning, including the waterproofing of leather, and - more alarmingly - the curing of ham and beef. It was also ‘valuable in the fabrication of white lead, copperas and alum’ and ‘fixes dyes strongly’. Note the title ‘for establishing sundry manufactories to make and extract for home consumption and exportation, coke, charcoal, ammonia, acids, oil, tar, chemical salts, &c.’ - at this stage Winsor was not actually discussing the setting up of a gas company but of sething more general which would exploit all these things - including, of course, coke. Much of what he had to say in these early leaflets was about the all embracing nature of what could be done, to use the products of the distillation of coal in all its facets.

It is however in the appendix of the second leaflet - the ‘Account Current of Profit and Loss’ that Winsor reveals both his current thoughts on the use of gas and some of his wilder speculations. He provides a detailed balance sheet for a domestic gas making stove. There is no need to go into a lot of details about his calculations - although many authors have fallen into the trap of describing this in detail. Suffice it to say that Winsor reckoned that for every £6 spent on domestic heat and light using his method, the grateful householder could expect to make a profit of £64. 10s. He also hinted, at the very end, that a company might be set up to realise this good fortune.

Meanwhile he continued with his lecture series at the Lyceum and at Green Street. Inevitably, he attracted copyists.

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