A Long ago, before electricity, fire was the only weapon against the darkness. Ancient civilizations used torches, but around 4500 BC, oil lamps made from shells or hollow stones were used. Candles were introduced about 1500 years later.
Oil lamps burned vegetable and animal oils, while candles burned wax and tallow. While the light produced was sufficient for reading at night, it was too soft and localized to illuminate a significant area. In addition, wax and oil required a great deal of maintenance, requiring regular trimming of the wick, and their portable vehicles constantly threatened to spill.
Society was looking for more and one of the most popular resources of the late 18th century provided the answer.
In 1792, William Murdoch, a Scottish inventor, equipped his house with pipes that supplied coal gas to lamps, creating “gas lighting”.
The coal gas combined with atmospheric oxygen carbon dioxide, water vapour, heat and light. Coal gas is produced by burning coal in a closed container, which separates its components into hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane as well as some solid by-products.
Other common gaseous fuels include propane, butane and ethylene. Sounds familiar? These are still used for camping stoves, where a light, compact and reliable fuel is useful.
Since coal gas passed through pipes in large quantities, its combustion produced light far more efficiently than candles.
Murdoch was eventually able to reproduce his performance outside his building, and people were so fascinated by the new bright light that a new industry was born. At the beginning of the 19th century, Paris and London had installed gas lamps along their streets.
The additional light increased accessibility and the demand for nocturnal activities and changed the nocturnal culture from being able to lock oneself in, go out and interact with others.
Although candles were greatly improved, they were not necessarily low maintenance – the lamps had to be lit manually every night and extinguished every morning.
Worse still, there were harmful side effects, as carbon monoxide, a deadly gas, was a by-product of the combustion reaction. At the turn of the 20th century, almost all street lamps were replaced by electric bulbs to provide cleaner, safer, brighter and more efficient lighting.