For centuries, people relied on little more than naked flames for illumination. These tallow candles and oil lamps were smoky, smelly and dangerous, and the light they emitted was poor. Dim light significantly restricted working hours, especially during the winter months.

All this changed in the late 18th century, when Scottish engineer William Murdoch found a way to harness coal gases to produce light bright enough to illuminate industrial spaces.

Let there be light

In 1777, Murdoch moved from his native Ayrshire to Birmingham, to work for the inventor James Watt. He progressed rapidly in the Boulton and Watt steam business. When he relocated to Redruth in Cornwall, he was responsible for the maintenance and repair of the engines used to pump water out of the Cornish tin mines.

In the early 1790s, Murdoch turned his hand to making light from gas produced by burning coal. He was inspired by youthful experiments in which he had put coal dust in his mother’s old kettle and lit the gas coming out of the spout.

By 1794, Murdoch was producing light from equipment that released gas from a small retort containing burning coals. He piped the gas up an iron tube and through an old gun barrel, where he ignited it. Using this setup, he was able to light parts of his house in Redruth. He even constructed a basic portable gas lantern that let him walk the moors at night.

Murdoch installed two gas lamps outside Boulton and Watt’s foundry in Soho in 1802. By the following year, the factory was entirely gas lit. Once further improvements had made the method more cost-effective, it was rolled out to other factories. Murdoch began with the Philips and Lee cotton mill in Salford, which eventually used more than 900 gas lights.

Gas lighting allowed the new mills and factories to work for up to 24 hours a day. Private gasworks soon sprang up to supply them. William Murdoch became the man who lit up the Industrial Revolution.

Energy through the Ages: How Steam Power Changed Manufacturing and The Golden Age of Electricity

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