Leslie Tomory is a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University in Montreal. His book, Progressive Enlightenment: the Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780–1820, is being published by MIT Press in 2012 and has kindly contributed this story.
During the Industrial Revolution, a new form of lighting was introduced that notably exceeded the illuminating power of the candles and oil lamps then in use: gas lighting. This form of lighting relied on gas produced from coal which was heated in an enclosed oven.
Remarkably, gas lighting was invented simultaneously in many places throughout Europe between 1775 and 1795, including in Cornwall by William Murdoch, an employee of Boulton & Watt. Other inventors include Philippe Lebon in Paris, and Alessandro Volta in Italy and Jan-Pieter Minckelers in Belgium.
However, despite interest in many places, it was only in Britain at Boulton & Watt that the basic invention was successfully scaled up from the smaller versions created by the early inventors into a form that could be used to provide light for large buildings such as textile mills, and later on entire cities.
Boulton & Watt effected this transformation between 1802 and 1812, during which time they built and sold a number of gas plants to textile mills around Manchester, Leeds, and elsewhere. Boulton & Watt’s basic design served as the prototype for the larger plants built in cities in Britain from 1812 onwards, and by 1820 almost all sizable towns had central gasworks and gas lighting.
Boulton & Watt succeeded where others failed because they and their suppliers already had extensive experience in designing and manufacturing iron machines to handle gases: steam engines. They were able to parlay this experience into gas lighting, and put the new industry on a solid foundations before leaving the field to others around 1812.