How Buildings Work

Gas Lighting

We are afraid of the dark. We don’t like it. For thousands of years we have worked on having mastery over our surroundings, and the production of light has been a crucial instrument all along the way. We created fireplaces and elaborate urns, then progressed to candles and eventually burning oil lanterns. The biggest drawback for all of these methods when it came to household illumination was the constant need of refueling. With natural gas, this changed.

In the Knob and Tube post, there is a reference to dual source light fixtures, the other source being coal-gas (and eventually natural gas). Originally discovered as a byproduct of coal mining, this invisible gas quickly became adopted as a light and heat source once it’s benefits were understood.

Paris and London were some of the first cities to use gas lighting for public places and streets. Having a gas that could be distributed via pipes allowed for illumination of much larger spaces with significantly reduced labor. Theaters saw widespread use, becoming so bright now actors and actresses had to change their makeup and motions of acting, able to be seen much clearer now. The Chatelet Theater in paris boasted over 28 miles of piping and over 900 valves for control.

Raw flame was a significant step above candlelight, but pioneers didn’t stop there. By aiming the jet of fire at different materials, even brighter light could be generated. Popular in theaters, a metal mesh coated with lime would yield rather brilliant light, hence the phrase “being in the lime light”

In buildings, the gas is distributed via cast iron pipes with threaded connections. While labor intensive, the ease and shorter learning curve led with widespread adoption. Combined with the cost savings over traditional fuels, and the struggles with electricity distribution, gas remained popular as a lighting solution well past the first electric lamps. Another added benefit was being able to use the same gas for heating devices, as well as cooking and baking. It is little wonder it took large leaps in electrical technology to finally end gas’ reign.

So why don’t we use natural gas more often today? Compared to modern wiring for electrical power distribution, gaslines are much more labor intensive to install. Some modern developments have narrowed the delta a bit, but electrical power is far more prevalent. The visible risks, fire and explosions, have plagued natural gas since it’s infancy, blamed for burning down countless buildings. Now that we have a great understanding of natural gas, we know that burning it creates large amounts of carbon monoxide. Drafty homes in years past kept this from becoming a widespread killer, but today incredible precautions and safety enhancements are needed to keep this poisonous gas at bay.

While it’s (and near cousin, propane’s) portability in tanks still allows for convenience in remote areas, we rarely see gas lighting today. It’s greatest use is in heating of air and water for domestic heat, and many still prefer cooking and baking with it in the kitchen. Decorative fireplaces have also seen a lot of popularity as safety mechanisms increase their reliability in the home.

How Buildings Work

More on Electricity

Coming back from a recent trip to Europe of course leads many questions about the differences in infrastructure and building development. It’s amazing how different things are across the board; electrical, plumbing, building materials, etc.

In doing research on these variations, I stumbled across a good read over at Rexophone. Good in this case being lengthy and nerdy, but also full of interesting photos as we discovered how to make electricity work. It’s a good resource for some of the items talked about in the Knob and Tube post. In particular, the photos of household items before plugs were invented are spectacular.