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Gas lighting

January 16, 2001

A public radio commentary

Nearly every morning I rise and sit by my flickering fireplace reading for half an hour or so. Recently, I learned that my neighbors were impressed because day after day they saw, by seven a.m., that I'd built a fire. I finally confessed that it was just a very realistic gas log; my only industry was to stumble out of bed and turn a knob to ignite the gas. This same gas-powered glow also impressed neighbors some two hundred years ago. In Newport, Rhode Island a house on the corner of Pelhman and Thames streets gave off what was then considered an eerie glow - too strong to be candle light, and too ubiquitous to be an open fire in every room.

It was the house of David Melville. By day he was a hardware merchant, but by night he was an inventor who experimented with lighting his house using "inflammable air" - what we'd call gas. He'd built his own gas generating plant in his basement: A small furnace that burned coal and made his so-called inflammable air. He stored the gas in a tank and from there he piped it around his house to be burned in special fixtures.

In 1813 he announced a public demonstration of his gas lighting with the intent to sell his system to every American house. The demonstration's purpose, he said, was to "gratify public curiosity" and allow him "to be to some degree remunerated for the very great expense" of his experiments - so he charged a fee of twenty five cents. He assured the curious public that gas lighting was "in no way offensive" and that it was safe. Melville's demonstration brought people by the thousands, followed by huge orders from factories in Providence and Watertown, Massachusetts. But once they learned the cost of installation and operation these customers canceled orders. With no prospects for home or industrial lighting Melville turned his attention to lighthouses. He got a Federal contract to develop gas powered lighthouses, but the government withdrew it under pressure from whale oil interests - the principal suppliers of oil for lamps.

So, Melville went back to his pewter trade and hardware store, but he'd lit a fire that could not be quenched. Within a few years gas lighting burst upon the scene with profound social and economic consequences. It lengthened the working day and made streets safer at night. It made it easier for dinner, usually taken at three in the afternoon, to slip into the evening. And evening classes became a possibility, allowing working people to gain an education after the day's work was done.

And now it makes it possible for me to turn a knob and have a roaring fire without chopping any logs.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises