History of Gasification
  William Murdoch
  William Murdoch (1754-1839)
Reproduction of a portrait by John Graham Gilbert in the City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham (public domain)

Applications for Light and Heat

In 1792, Scottish engineer William Murdoch first realized the commercial potential of heating coal in the absence of air to produce gas. Murdoch used this gas to provide lighting in his home while refining his manufacturing method.[2] He collaborated with his employers, Matthew Boulton and famous steam engine manufacturer James Watt, to provide industrial gas lighting throughout England by 1798.  In 1807, “town gas” began to be used for street lighting, and by 1816 most of London was using the gas.[1] Some important milestones for gasification technology in this period were:

  • In 1804, coal gas was first patented for lighting by Freidrich Winzer.[2]
  • London and Westminster Gas Light & Coke Company performed the first public display of gas lighting by illuminating Westminster Bridge on New Year's Eve in 1813 using “town gas” via wooden pipes.
  • The Baltimore Gas Company became the first gasification company in the United States in 1816, providing town gas for street lighting.
  • Following its introduction in Baltimore, street lighting with town gas spread through the Eastern United States very rapidly, including to Boston in 1821, New York in 1823 and Philadelphia in 1841.
  • Prior to World War II approximately 20,000 gasifiers were operating in the United States alone.[1]

Before long, nearly every major urban area had its own gas works to convert coal into gas for lighting, heating and cooking fuel.

Gasification continued to fill a significant role as an energy supply technology until advancements in safer electric lighting by Thomas Edison in the 1880s forced town gas out of the interior lighting market.  Increasing natural gas resources and infrastructure improvement in the early 1900s provided a low-cost alternative to town gas for heating and cooking applications, reducing gasification to use in areas without access to natural gas.

Sutton Gas Holder

Sutton Gas Holder
This tank was used for storage of town gas prior to distribution to consumers. The volume of the tank could be adjusted to allow for varying levels of gas production and consumption.
(Courtesy of the London Borough of Sutton)



Workers at Sutton Gas Works
Early gasification involved shoveling of coal into large sealed vessels called retorts. The coal was then heated to produce town gas, tar and coke. The workmen here were employed to shovel coal into the retorts.
(Courtesy of the London Borough of Sutton)

Workers at Sutton Gas Works

Coal Energy Systems, Bruce G. Miller, pg 247
History of Lighting and Lamps

 Gasification Background


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