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Progressive Enlightenment: The Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780-1820

Author(s):Tomory, Leslie
Reviewer(s):Jones, Peter M.

Published by EH.Net (August 2012)

Leslie Tomory, Progressive Enlightenment: The Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780-1820. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.? xi + 348 pp. $28 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-262-01675-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Peter M. Jones, Department of History, University of Birmingham.

This is a book designed at two levels. On the one hand Tomory, who is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill University, offers us a pioneer study of the development of gas lighting on the basis of the destructive distillation of coal. On the other he provides a substantial endorsement of the argument advanced by Joel Mokyr and a number of historians of science that the Industrial Revolution was both preceded and facilitated by an Industrial Enlightenment. The questions posed are: how did gas lighting come into being in the first place; why were some individuals able to exploit the science and the technology for commercial purposes and others not; and why did the industry prosper initially in Britain and not elsewhere in Europe?

Although the key figures in the history of illumination by gas are familiar to researchers, the story of the transition of gas lighting from intellectual curiosity to capitalist industry has never been told before — at least not at the level of individual savants, technologists and entrepreneurs. Tomory?s account unfolds in three stages: the scientific context; the first successful attempts to supply coal gas to factories on a piecemeal basis; and the development of a networked gas industry providing continuous supply to factories, public buildings and domestic consumers. Although the technology of distillation (the heating of combustible materials in an airtight oven) had long been practiced, Tomory is at pains to emphasize the link to chemistry — specifically the rapid advances? taking place in many parts of Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century which? led to a better understanding of the chemistry of ?airs.? The role played by these savants (Priestley, Scheele, Lavoisier, Volta, etc.) in the identification and purification of gases is well known. But the author reminds us that they often worked in collaboration with, or in proximity to, technologists and highly skilled artisans whose primary purpose lay in finding useful applications for the new chemistry. Thus the Montgolfier brothers and Aim? Argand pioneered aerostatics employing hot air or hydrogen gas as the propellant; James Watt took time off from his activities as an engineer to pursue a vain dream of pneumatic medicine; and William Murdoch tinkered with the idea of illuminating factories using an inflammable gas distilled from coal.

The author moves his argument along with a neat anecdote about Gregory Watt (youngest son of the steam engineer) who in 1801 witnessed Philippe Lebon?s successful demonstration of gas lighting in Paris. This allows him to switch the focus to Britain and more especially to Birmingham, where the first commercially viable technology to produce gas from coal was developed by Murdoch in the workshops of Boulton & Watt. The Lebon episode also serves to demonstrate Tomory?s point that promising technologies are not automatically taken up. In the face of indifference from investors, Lebon abandoned gas production and reverted to tar distillation instead. Their attitude is readily understandable when it is remembered that the main market for gas lighting lay not in France but in the textile mills of northern England. By 1806 Boulton & Watt had succeeded in fitting out Philips and Lee?s seven-story factory in Salford and their order book for ?photogenous? equipment was full to overflowing.

Yet the Birmingham firm never consolidated its technological lead in gas lighting — from choice, it appears, since James Watt junior who had become the driving force in the business had other priorities. Instead, technological momentum in the industry moved to London and it was there that the problems associated with scaling up and securing a continuous gas supply were overcome. The networking of gas in an urban setting forms the third and longest section of Tomory?s book. The provision of gas on demand to urban customers not only required solutions to technological problems which Boulton & Watt had barely encountered, it required a huge amount of entrepreneurial vision and stamina. These were essentially the achievements of the Gas Light and Coke Company which came into being in 1812 having patterned itself on the water companies that were springing up in London at that time. With a former apprentice of Murdoch, Samuel Clegg, as chief engineer, it was feeding gas along 120 miles of street mains to about 30,000 lamps by 1820.

Little of this story was known before, and Tomory tells it in clear and logical prose. Although his study of the gas lighting industry deserves to stand in its own right, we are reminded at intervals of its wider significance as a working example of the interplay of the factors hypothesized in the Industrial Enlightenment thesis: pan-European knowledge circulation; science-driven technological improvement; artisan skill; and industrial entrepreneurship. To these denominators his case study invites us to add the marketplace as the unavoidable proving ground of new technologies and, in the case of Britain, the contribution made by cheap and accessible supplies of coal.

It is true that the author?s rather spare mode of exposition leaves little room for elaboration on the main themes. This reviewer would have appreciated a more discursive approach. A wider focus would tend to reinforce the central argument in any case. It would be possible, for instance, to document much more convincingly the ?public Enlightenment? origins of the infant gas-light industry. Many of the actors whom Tomory mentions only in passing (Volta, Faujas de Saint-Fond, Van Marum, Argand) had direct and technologically rewarding contacts with Birmingham?s chemists and manufacturers in the 1770s, 1780s and 1790s. The Swiss savant Argand is a case in point since he won his spurs as a chemist in the entourage of Lavoisier; collaborated with the Montgolfiers; and then went into commercial partnership with Matthew Boulton to manufacture his eponymous oil lamp — the biggest innovation in domestic and industrial lighting prior to the isolation of coal gas for this purpose. While in Birmingham he also introduced new techniques for hydrogen manufacture and capture as part of Boulton & Watt?s own program of aerostatic experiments. Tomory?s neglect of Argand?s brilliant and odorless lamp actually introduces a slight distortion if his account is viewed in the round as a history of lighting, for the antecedent technology which industrial-scale gas lighting replaced was not only candle power but also the Argand lamp.??
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Peter M. Jones is Professor of French History at the University of Birmingham and author of Industrial Enlightenment: Science, Technology and Culture in Birmingham and the West Midlands, 1760-1820 (Manchester University Press, hardback 2008, paperback 2013).
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Subject(s):Business History
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century