2012 is the 200th anniversary of the British gas industry. Leslie Tomory, author of Progressive Enlightenment: The Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780-1820, reflects on how this industry’s creation marked the beginning of a new phase in Western industrialization.
The gas industry in North America has seen dramatic changes over the last few years as it expands rapidly with supplies of shale and coal-bed methane becoming available, thanks to new exploration and extraction technologies. This energy industry, however, has seen many technological shifts since the industry was created with the incorporation of the world’s first gas company, the Gas Light and Coke Company (GLCC), 200 years ago in London. The most important of these changes was the switch from manufactured to natural gas. Rather than relying on gas extracted from the ground, the GLCC operated by manufacturing gas through the gasification of coal. This process produced a gas which was a mixture of mostly methane and hydrogen, together with many impurities, some of which, like hydrogen sulfide, were quite toxic. The gas produced in the GLCC’s three London gasworks was then purified, stored, and finally distributed through a network of pipes to lamps spread throughout the city, mostly in streets, public buildings, and shops, but also in homes of wealthier people. From its founding in 1812, the GLCC expanded rapidly, with its pipes supplying 30,000 lamps in many parts of London.
The founding of the Gas Light and Coke Company represented more than the creation of an important new industry. It also marked a beginning of a new phase in the industrialization of the West because the gas industry presented some characteristics that set it apart from technologies and the industries based on them that had appeared earlier in the Industrial Revolution. These were to become more common later in the nineteenth century. Specifically, the gas industry was science-based; it required capital beyond what family firms or small partnerships could muster; and it had a degree of complexity as a large scale technological network that required a host of business and technological measure to stabilize and control. The combination of all of these characteristics together in the gas industry meant that 200 years ago, a new wave of the Industrial Revolution had begun.