Boom, Boom? The Domestic Use of Gas and its Appliances.

The main body of this article will focus upon the domestic use of what used to be town gas and its successor natural gas as a primary fuel for heating our homes, providing us with hot water and the means to cook with. Gas has been used in the home for over a century now but the gaining of public acceptance and the increasing competition faced from its main competitor electricity meant it was not always an easy ride for the new gas fuelled technologies.

During the 17th and 18th century people were demonstrating as little more than a novel party trick that when heated coal gave off an ignitable gas, which burned with a bright flame. What became known as coal or town gas was not put to any practical or commercial use until the multi talented Scottish engineer William Murdoch of Boulton and Watt fame demonstrated the use of coal gas to light his home in Cornwall in 1792. Boulton and Watt seized upon Murdoch’s growing expertise and after developing prototypes at their Soho works in Birmingham started to construct small scale gas works for individual industrial users. The first of these small scale and in today’s terminology micro coal gas plants was completed by the Boulton and Watt Company to provide gas lighting to Philips & Lee, a cotton mill in Salford, near Manchester in 1806.  The next major stepping stone in the time line of bringing gas into the home for domestic use is probably the building of the first public gas works in Westminster London in 1813. The Westminster gas works was built as a direct result of Frederick Winsor giving public exhibitions of gas lighting as the way of marketing, and promoting, his idea of building a centralised gas works, and pumping gas through pipes to light the streets.  Winsor was subsequently granted a Royal Charter by George III, which involved an act of parliament and founded the Gas Light and Coke Company, which remained in private hands until the nationalisation of the gas companies in 1949.  Within fifteen years of the opening of the first gas works in Westminster every major city and town in Britain and the strategic towns in Europe and North America had its own gas works. It is said by 1821 no city or town in Britain with a population over fifty thousand was without gas lighting and by 1826, just five years later there were only two towns with populations over two thousand without gas lighting.

 Soho House, Boom Boom

(Soho house, where Matthew Boulton entertained the leading scientists and inventors of the industrial age.)

The take up for the domestic use of gas was slow in spite of its widespread use in public buildings, shops and factories. It was not unil the mid 1870s that the use of gas to light our homes became a familiar sight in the newly established urban living of city and town life. The earliest of gas lights consisted of little more than the flickering flame shrouded in a glass shade offering a much improved   light in comparison to oil lamps and candles but in reality still a dim yellow light. It wasn’t until the innovation of the incandescent mantel or the Welsbach mantle by Carl Auer (1885), when coupled with Robert Bunsen’s, of Bunsen Burner fame advances thirty years earlier in aerated flame was used to heat the ceramic gauze of the mantel that a much brighter and whiter light was possible. The Welsbach mantle helped gas light to hold it own in a battle it was destined to eventually lose to the newly introduced electric light (1880s). The supersedence of gas lighting by electric lighting forced the gas companies, some privately owned and others, like Birmingham and Manchester in the hands of the municipalities to seek new markets.

 Gas Lamp, Boom BooomAlthough, gas had eventually gained societal acceptance for public and domestic lighting domestic cooking with gas experienced a very sluggish start.   The first patent for a gas cooker was early as 1826 with the first gas stove factory being opened in 1836.   Low levels of public opinion to cooking with gas were not helped by the fact that many gas companies forbid the use of gas during the day time. The London Reform Club founded as a meeting place for the advocates of the Great Reform Act of 1832 was amongst the first institutions in Britain to install gas cookers (1841). The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, a celebration of modern technology and design, held at the purpose built Crystal Palace in 1851 included a number of gas cookers and stoves amongst the exhibitions . The exhibitors included the Bower's Registered Gas Stove which was to set the industry benchmark for the time and provide the basis for the design of the modern gas oven. The Crystal Palace event greatly helped to popularise the use of gas cookers amongst the wealthier strata’s of society.  The gas stoves popularity was not helped by the fact that the original gas cookers were quite large and cumbersome. It was not until manufactures started to integrate the oven with the hob into the base unit thereby reducing the size of the appliance that the general public seriously considered installing a gas cooker into their homes. The early gas companies in a very successful  attempt to boost sales adopted a novel approach to marketing by offering cookers to rent or buy paid for through the expanding pre-payment gas meters scheme.    The aesthetics and the arduous task of cleaning of gas cookers was greatly improved from 1910 onwards as producers started to enamel them making them a more attractive option to the consumer.  In 1920 Gustaf Dalen, whilst working for the Swedish company Aktiebolaget Gas Accumulator (AGA), bought to market what still remains a high end gas cooker the AGA.  Arguably the greatest innovation to boost sales in these early days was probably the introduction of the oven thermostat in 1926.

Crystal Palace, Boom Boom

(Queen Victoria opens the great exhibition in 1851)

The earliest attempts to heat hot water for domestic use by gas in the 1850s included directly applying the gas jet and the naked flame to a metal bath. It is not known whether it was intended you turned off the gas before bathing or not. The introduction of the first instantaneous domestic water heater (1868), called the Hot Water Geysers in honour of the Icelandic natural phenomena of gushing hot water springs, piped cold water through a series of gas heated pipes. Although enjoying some success in Britain and Europe Geysers were not very popular in North America.  These early hot water heaters were inherently dangerous as there was no means to evacuate the heated gas bi products including Carbon Monoxide from the bathroom or kitchen.  Historically hot water gas technology split into two paths. A Norwegian mechanical engineer Edwin Rudd  navigated the one fork to develop the first automatic  gas hot water storage tank  (1889) with automatic ignition, the predecessor to the centralised hot water tanks of today. The other line of development saw improvements in the hot water geyser.    The early 20th century saw the addition of a flue to remove the noxious fumes and gases and the addition of automatic ignition from a pilot light. In Britain today the domestic hot water geyser has in the main been superseded by centralised hot water tanks whether heated by electric emersion heaters, gas boilers and tankless combination gas boilers capable of providing hot water and running central heating systems.  It is however still quite common to see hot water geysers in multi point of use environments such as offices, public buildings and hospitals etc  

The challenge to heat our homes by gas met with limited success with the preference for coal in both public and domestic buildings until well into the mid 20th Century.  The first commercially available gas heaters were manufactured by Pettit and Smith in Birmingham England in 1856.  These early gas fuelled heaters or fires used the aerated flame principles of our earlier acquaintance Robert Bunsen to heat the localalised air, which then via convection warmed the rest of the room. The same principle is still used by patio heaters today. Innovations to the gas fire were soon to follow the first patented by the English engineer Sigismund Leoni in1881 introduced tufted asbestos structures within the body of the fire to be heated by the gas burners. The fundamentals of this design was carried forward with the introduction of ceramic radiant’s in 1905 moving the primary form of heat from convection to radiant heat. Radiant heat, heats objects directly, rather than heating just the surrounding air. It does this by emitting long wave radiation with the ability to penetrate solid objects, walls, floors, furniture etc including people, not unlike the way the sun   warms us. The next major improvement to greatly improve the efficiency of gas fires was the development of the convector heater, which uses a heat exchanger to harness the heat from the waste flue gases. The real shot in the arm to promote the use of gas heaters came in the form of The Clean Air Act of 1956 which placed restrictions on the use of solid fuels in urban areas. The act also did much to support the move to complete household gas central heating systems dependent upon the advancements of gas water heating calumniating in the gas condensing, tankless combination boiler capable of providing hot water and warmth to the household.

In light of the ever increasing pressure facing the gas companies and gas appliance manufacturers from its main competitors the newly formed electricity companies the gas companies of yesteryear were forever trying to break into and expand the domestic home markets particularly having lost the lighting battle. From the 1920s onwards a wide array of what we can only be called by today’s standards bizarre innovations hit the market with the attempted introduction of gas irons, gas fans and even gas radios. These non vented and highly mobile units obviously presented their own dangers in relation to gas leaks and the non evacuation of noxious gases and fumes. The gas companies even tried to beat the electricity companies at their own game with the introduction of domestic gas thermo electric generators.

The gas companies underwent three massive transformative in the 20th Century. The first, a social and political change culminating in the nationalisation of the gas companies which by this time had with very early government legislation matured into monopolies where single supplies provided gas for given areas or regions. Some of the 1064 gas providers were solely owned by municipalities such as Birmingham and Manchester for others ownership lay solely in private hands. All were   amalgamated under The Gas Act of 1948 in to twelve Area Gas Boards. The second major change the switch over from coal or town gas to natural gas saw the conversion or replacement of every gas appliance in the country. The conversion process started in 1967 and took tens to complete and involved the adaptation or replacement of over 20 million gas appliance. The third transformative change was instigated under Mrs Thatcher when the assets of the British Gas Corporation were transferred to British Gas PLC closely followed with the shares being floated on the stock market in November 1986.  The story for the British gas industry is far from over, new technologies, new reserves such as  shale gas,  and the ever-changing socio-political landscape is destined to keep the gas industry from retiring into the shadows way beyond the foreseeable future.

 British Gas, Boom Boom

(British Gas, still a leading gas supplier in Britain to this day)


By Phil Cleaver

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