Amid the many applications of science to the wants of man and the uses of the arts, none more eminently distinguish the present era than the production and application of gas as an illuminator and heater. Indeed, nothing can better give an idea of the progress of civilization than a comparison, in this one item, of the humble peasant of to-day with the monarchs and emperors of old. The cottager, now-a-days, can have his dwelling illuminated with a cheap and brilliant light, while they had to go to bed at sundown, shivering with cold, or remain in the sooty atmosphere produced by the vacillating flame of a resin torch, or their magnificently designed but rude oil lamps, which required the most pungent and costly perfumes, brought from the far-distant East, to counteract the fetid smell emitted by the burning of unrefined oils and fats. The history of gas-lighting is capable of being made out with some accuracy, as all the events which have characterized its past are of comparatively recent occurence, with the exception as to the priority of the invention, which is claimed by Winsor, a German; Murdoch, an Englishman ; and Le Bon, a Frenchman. There is no doubt that one of these has the honor of being the first to make practically useful, and a public boon,the manufacture of gas by distillation; for an inflammable gas, which would give light and heat, had been known for ages. At Baku, on the Caspian Sea, an inflammable air, issuing from the earth, formed the sacred fire in the temple ; the burning fountain of Dauphine is of the same origin; and scattered over the whole globe there are spots where this inflammable air bursts up like an atmospheric fountain ; The Chinese had applied these fountains to a useful [purpose, almost before the Europeans had any idea of their existence. The Chinese inserted bamboo pipes in the earth, and conveyed the gas through these to places where it was burned, and employed to light public establishments, heat baths, and evaporate salt brine. In 1659, Thomas Shirley attributed the gas which came from the " burning well" near Wigan in England, to the subjacent coal beds; and in 1691, Dr. James Clayton, a clergyman, of Yorkshire, discovered that Newcastle coal, when distilled, gave a black oil, a watery fluid, and an inflammable air. This, then, was the true discovery of coal gas. He communicated his results and experiments to the Hon. Robert Boyle, who published them in the "Transactions of the Royal Society, " in 1739. In the meantime, Dr. Clayton had prepared gas, washed it with water, and filled bladders with it, and placing these bladders under pressure boards, had forced it through pipes, and consumed it at a burner in his house ! In all justice, Dr. Clayton ought to be looked upon as the inventor of gas-lighting. The Bishop of Llandaff, in 1767, confirmed Clayton's experiments; but although it had been demonstrated that coal gas could be used, nothing practical was done until 1785, when Philippe Le Bon, a French engineer, conceived the idea of collecting the gas evolved during the destructive distillation of different kinds of wood, for the purpose of lighting houses, by conveying it through tubes to jets, where it could be burned. In 1799, he communicated his discovery to the Institute—a scientific body just created by law in the midst of the French revolutionary turmoil ; and in 1800, one of the first paten ts'granted in France, under the general law, was that taken by Le Bon for a stove for heating and producing an economical light, and also affording a motive power applicable to any machine. In this patent the inventor embraced many devices, which, perfected in more modern times, have vastly contributed to the welfare of mankind. He probably aimed at too much, as is very often the case ; and, in his desire of combin-? ing together a hot air furnace, a steam boiler, 1 and a-gas generator, before each of these de-C vices was perfected, he failed to accomplish ty any substantial improvement. He lighted an hotel in Paris, but his gas was of so poor a quality that his experiments were not followed up, and he died ruined and broken-hearted. In 1802, Winsor, a German, translated into three languages, and published Le Bon's communications to the Institute, and went to London himself to deliver public lectures on the subject, and exhibit the new light at the Lyceum Theater, which was the first public building lighted with gas in England ; and Pall Mall, in London, was the first street in the world that was lighted by this means. It is, however, well-established now, that, at the same time that Le Bon was making his experiments, Murdoch was going through similar trials, though with more success ; in 1798, he established at the Soho Foundry— Watt's, where the first efficient steam engines were constructed—a gas apparatus which actually lighted that establishment. In 1806, he received a gold medal for a description of his process. Nothing very extensive or really useful to the public had been accomplished before Clegg gave his attention to the perfecting of the system ; and to him is certainly due the honor of. making gas-lighting a general benefit. Before him, gas was merely a thick smoke, which was set fire to, and continued to burn until the pipes were gummed up with tar and other impurities, whilst the atmosphere was tainted with sulphurous vapors to such a degree that the whole body of learned men of the time, in almost every country, declared against the possibility of ever rendering that system available to the public. Whilst the system was being condemned, perhaps justly then, Winsor, who possessed indomitable energy, mixed with a large proportion of what some call " brass, " undertook the formation of a large gas company. His prospectus and memorial to Parliament are models of their kind. To capitalists he promised an income of 712 for every 5 subscribed. To overcome the objections raised on account of the bad smell, he stated that breathing coal gas was a most healthy practice, and that, when people became aware of its value, far from fearing leaks in the pipe, they would even drill small holes in such as would be tight, so as to ensure a constant flow into their dwellings of the salutary emanations ; and further, that clever physicians would recommend to keep bladders filled with coal gas under the pillows of their patients. A policemen declared that he could detect the features of a thief as well by gas-light as by daylight ; a painter, that the varnish from tar was superior to japan ; an agriculturist, that the water from coal would replace every other manure, &c. It is very probable that such exaggerated statements had the greater share in the ultimate success of the discovery, by enlisting the cupidity and prejudices of a large number of men who otherwise would not have given the subject any attention. Companies were formed and ruined ; until, at last, the manufacture of gas was brought to a fair standard, and, by the intelligent and persevering application of science, has become what it is now—one of the most popular and valuable improvements of the age—one of the most extensive branches of productive industry—and, for the capitalist, one of the safest and most reliable investments. As we stated above, Clegg was instrumental in perfecting gas-lighting, and to him most of the useful contrivances now found in gasworks are due. Murdoch and Winsor had only built retorts in stoves. The retorts or cylinders were filled with coal, a fire was lighted, and kept up until all the volatile matter was expelled. The stoves were then allowed to cool, and the residuum in the retorts withdrawn. A new charge is now introduced, the fire re-lighted, and the operation repeated. When it is considered that good gas is only produced at a cherry red heat, it will be understood how deficient this process was, since most of the oily Substances contained in the coal passed over in the state of vapors, the heaviest of which condense before reaching the gas-holder. Clegg introduced the con- tinuous process, by which a much larger volume of gas, of a better quality, was produced, and the quantity of tar materially diminished. Though comparatively good results are thus obtained, much room for improvement is left in that respect, up to this day, since tar, which is yet condensed in large quantities, contains the elements of gas. Clegg introduced the hydraulic main, which is a wide horizontal pipe, in which a large proportion of the liquids are condensed, and into which the outlet pipe from the retort dips, thus preventing the gas from returning to the retort, yet leaving it free to pass from it. He invented the governor, by which a regular pressure is secured upon the mains, though the consumption varies. The regulators now sold to private individuals, and which, when well-constructed, answer very good purposes, are mere modifications of the governor first introduced by Clegg, and perfected by Crosley, who, associated with him, seems to have followed every one of his inventions, to improve and simplify them.
This article was originally published with the title "Gas-lighting.—Article I" in Scientific American 13, 24, 190 (February 1858)