Energy costs in 1876


The following table is an extract of a longer table published in 1876 [1] with heating values in calories, which I converted into SI-units. Taking into account that the heating values of natural fuel (petroleum and coal) may vary with their providence, the heating values of 1876 do not differ much from todays measured values. The costs were assembled from different historical sources as explained below. 



fuelheating value in caloriesHeating value in MJ/kgPrice of 1kg in MarkCosts Mark/TJ
hydrogen34,460144.27.20 - 12.0050.00 - 83.00
illuminating gas22,00092.00.40 - 0.504.35 - 5.45
petroleum10,20042.70.40 - 0.509.40-11.70
hard coal (Steinkohle)7,00029.30.0250.85
soft coal (Braunkohle)5,00020.90.0180.87
dry peat4,80020.1
dry wood3,60015.1




Hydrogen in big quantities was used at the time mainly for filling captive balloons. It was produced by a chemical reaction of iron and sulfuric acid, later from zinc and hydrochloric acid. Henry Giffard, a French ballooning pioneer, used in 1878 order to fill his 25,000 giant dirigible balloon, which had on aboard a small steam engine to propel the dirigible balloon, 80,000 kg of iron chips and 180,000 kg of sulphuric acid. The costs for producing 1 cubic meter hydrogen from iron and sulphuric acid were stated in a book from 1907 to be 0.60 - 1.00 Mark. [2] This might be the price for 1907.  

In his introduction to a comparison of fuel costs [3] Prof. Fritz states that per weight illuminating gas has a three times higher heating value, but is 8 to 10 times more expensive than hard coal. Petroleum, having a 1.5 higher heating value per weight than hard coal, is even 16 - 20 times more expansive than hard coal. Assuming the price of 10 kg of hard coal being 0.25 Mark we can calculate the cost of illuminating gas and petroleum accordingly. The price of 0.20 - 0.25 Mark calculated for 1 kg of town gas seems to be too low as this price has to be divided at least by a factor two to arrive at the price for one cubic meter of town gas. According to the Statistical notes in "Journal für Gasbeleuchtung und verwandte Beleuchtungsarten" v.19 1876, pages 357-358, the sales price for 1 cubic meter of town gas in 1876 was in Braunschweig 0.24 Mark, in Magdeburg 0.20 Mark. Maybe Prof. Fritz took the price at cost, as we know that the Berlin Gaswerke calculated the cubic meter price for the streetlights at 0.1106 Mark.

At the time the name petroleum was used by Hock and following his example by other manufacturers as a synonym for gasoline, a petroleum fraction consisting mostly of C7 and C8 hydrocarbons and boiling in the range 90‒140 °C, also called heavy naphtha. Products under the name ligroin, which was used by Benz for his first automobile, can have boiling ranges as low as 60‒80 °C and may also have been called light naphtha. At the time they were used mainly for cleaning clothes and therefore produced and offered for sale in pharmacies. A trial sample of 150 barrels of refined petroleum "White Standard" was imported in 1860 via the port of Bremen into Germany. 1871 the import had "rocketed" to 42,450 tons with a value of 13.9 Reichsmark, which is equivalent to 0.33Mark/kg [4]. This corresponds well with Prof. Fritz price range of 0.40 Mark -  0.50 Mark/kg for a retail price. Assuming a specific weight of 0.7 kg/liter the cost of petroleum for 1 liter was about 0.60 - 0.70 Mark.

When put into perspective of potential energy for money then town gas was only 5 to 6 times, and petroleum 11 to 14 times more expensive than coal.