History of Gaslights

While there is evidence that the Chinese used gas to illuminate salt mines thousands of years ago, the first domestic gaslights didn’t appear until the late 1700’s. William Murdoch began experimenting with coal gas late in that century and by 1792, he had his cottage near Birmingham, England completely lit by coal gas. His invention quickly evolved and by 1798, he was using gas to light his entire factory.

This new technology had immediate and profound effects on the civilized world. Suddenly, factories could run continuously over 24 hours resulting in increased production. Dark streets could now be illuminated, offering a sense of safety and security. And at the time when books and newspapers were becoming more available and less expensive, gaslights enabled people, especially less affluent people, to read and write at night.

Some of the first gas lights in the United States appeared in the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. In 1816, Rembrandt Peal used gas lights to illuminate an exhibit in his museum in Baltimore. The gaslights had such an impact on patrons to his museum that he quickly got the city council to pass an ordinance allowing him to manufacture gas, run gas lines in the streets and contract with the city for street lighting. This arrangement with the city council allowed Peal to form the first gas company in the United States. Soon, the demand for gas lighting spread to cities throughout the U.S. and by the late 1800’s, almost one thousand American companies were producing gas for lighting purposes.

Toward the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, gas lighting slowly lost ground to a new technology - the electric lamp. The arc lamp and the electric incandescent light bulb posed a serious threat to the gaslight industry. The only thing that saved the industry from extinction at that time was the development of the gas mantle. The gas mantle, for the short term anyway, offered a better quality of light than that which was offered by the electric lamp. Furthermore, electricity was more expensive and most houses didn’t have access to it yet. It was only a matter of time, however, before electricity replaced gas as the main means of energy for illumination.

Today, gas lights are more of a novelty item. They offer a nostalgic reflection back to a time when life was more simple and less hurried. A time when street lights were manually lit each night, only to be put out the following morning. We’ve come a long way since that time, but gaslights will continue to serve as a charming and nostalgic reminder of a time gone by.

“Let your light shine”