History of Gas

Find out more about the history of the British gas industry, from its origins in the late seventeenth century to becoming one of Britain’s and the world’s most important sources of energy.

Origins of the Gas Industry

In 17th and 18th century Britain, it was demonstrated that coal, when heated, gave off a gas which burned with a bright flame. Scottish engineer William Murdoch was the first put this to practical use by lighting his house in Cornwall with it in 1792. Later, his employers, the Birmingham steam engine manufacturers Boulton and Watt, started to build small gas works for factories. In 1807, Frederick Winsor, German entrepreneur, demonstrated the use of gas to light London streets. In 1812, Winsor obtained a Royal Charter to build the world’s first public gas works, which opened in Westminster in 1813. Gas lighting became quickly very popular and within 15 years, almost every large town in Britain, Europe, North America and beyond, had a gas works. Windsor’s company, the Gas Light and Coke Company, continued to supply most of London’s gas until the gas industry was nationalised in 1949.

Storing and Distributing Gas

Originally, gas was only used for lighting for a few hours at the start and end of each day. Storing gas was the solution to make it over a longer period. The first gas holders were a “bell” floating in a tank of water. Calibration marks were used to show on the floating bell showed how much gas was being made or used. Later in the 19th century, gas holders became larger and telescopic sections were added. Waterless designs were introduced from Europe in the 20th century. Many gas holders remain in use today in Britain, being filled at night and emptied during the day in the winter. First gas pipes were generally made of iron, they are now made from polyethylene for higher pressures.

Gas Lighting

Gas was first used almost exclusively for lighting. The first British gas works were built to light new mills and factories. By 1826, almost every city and large town in Britain had a gas works for lighting the streets. Public buildings, shops and larger houses generally had gas lighting. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the 19th century that most working people could afford to light their homes with gas. Throughout most of the 19th century, gas lights were simply naked flames. The brightness of the flames was poor by modern standards. That is one reason why electric lighting gradually replaced gas through the first half of the 20th century. Today, only few cities including London have retained gas street lights, often to preserve their historic character.

Cooking and Heating with Gas

Public acceptance for the use of gas for other purposes than lighting was slow to gain. The fact that many gas industry companies prohibited the use of gas during the day didn’t help either. Gas cookers became popular after the Great Exhibition of 1851 but only wealthy households could afford them. Pioneers of the gas industry demonstrated devices for heating with gas but coal remained the preferred fuel for heating most buildings until well into the 20th century. Ceramic radiants were introduced to the gas industry in 1905 and the efficiency of gas fires was improved substantially in the 1950s with the development of convector fires, which use a heat exchanger to recover heat from the flue gasses. The popularity of gas fires, space heaters and central heating boilers increased massively after the Clean Air Act of 1956 (which restricted the use of solid fuel in urban areas).

Hot Water

The earliest attempt to use gas to provide domestic hot water, in the 1850s, used gas jets to directly heat a metal bath and the water inside. Later in the 19th century, gas geysers were produced, which were mounted directly above the sink or bath. These were quite dangerous as they had no flues. In the 20th century, flued gas water heaters with automatic ignition from a pilot light became common.

Gas in Industries

The use of gas for purposes other than lighting was also slow to take off in industry. Gas flames were first used in the 19th century in textile mills (for singeing thread and finishing fabric), then in glass manufactures, jewellery and tinsmiths’ workshops… Gas engines were developed around 1860. They became popular for many industrial applications as they were often smaller and more flexible than steam engines. In the beginning of 20th century, gas engines were being used to generate electricity in factories and for public and tramway supplies. A new era of the UK gas industry was born when Natural gas was introduced to Britain in 1960. Many industries adopted natural gas because it was cheaper and cleaner than manufactured gas.

Measuring Gas

The rotary gas meter was invented in 1817. At the time, gas supplied to consumers was not measured. Consumers paid depended on the number of lights they had! In the second half of the 19th century, the introduction of the prepayment or slot meter to the gas industry, put gas within reach of poor people and therefore gas meters became more common.

Gas from Oil

Throughout the 20th century, the gas industry had seen improvements on the efficiency of gas manufacture. From the late 1950s onwards, new reforming processes were developed for making gas from petroleum products (naphtha or propane). These plants produced gas at much higher pressures that was possible with coal gasification, enabling the gas to piped to longer distances, which led to the closure of many small town gas works.

The Natural Gas Era

Natural gas was imported into Britain by boat in liquid form from 1959, for use in the new reformer plants. Large quantities natural gas were discovered off the coast of Yorkshire in 1965. UK gas industry then decided to supply this natural gas directly to consumers rather than use it to make manufactured gas. Natural gas, (mainly methane), has very different burning properties from manufactured gas and it was necessary to adapt or replace every gas appliance in Britain (around 20 million)! The conversion started in 1967 and took ten years to complete. The old appliances were collected because they could not be converted to use natural gas.