Town gas, or illuminating gas which is the literal translation of the German word “Leuchtgas” is produced in ovens wherein coal is heated strongly in the absence of air (coking). Originally this mixture of different gases was a side product of the distillation of coal, wood or other organic substances to produce coke or char coal, pitch, tar and acetic acid. It sometimes was an unwanted, dangerous to handle side product as it tend to leave the oven uncontrolled and produced flames around the badly sealed oven. With the abundance of coal in England and Wales at the time it was produced in England and Wales from coal, called coal gas, and on the continent mainly from wood, being called wood gas.

It is very different to make a practical system and to introduce it. A few experiments in the laboratory would prove the practicability of a system long before it could be brought into general use. You can take a pipe and put a little coal in it, close it up, heat it and light the gas that comes out of the stem, but that is not introducing gas lighting. I’ll bet that if it were discovered to-morrow in New York that gas could be made out of coal it would be at least five years before the system would be in general use.

— Thomas Edison (1879) [1]

Apart from Philippe Lebon, who in 1802 had the idea to produce wood gas as a fuel for a gas engine, but due to his early death nether build such an engine, it took almost 50 years after the introduction of town gas in Paris before an internal combustion engine fuelled with town gas defied for dominance of the steam engine. Obviously the wide availability of town gas was a precondition for the development of internal combustion engines. Once introduced, the gas engines then very soon were adapted to run also with gasified liquid fuels at locations where town gas was not available.

Inflammable gases were known for a long time, especially to miners, rather by the direful effects which they so often produced, than for useful qualities [2]. The first scientific reference is a letter  from Ph. Shirley to the Royal Society in London in 1659 about an eruption of combustible gas from a well close to Wigan in Lancashire [3]. Dr. Stephan Hales published in 1726 his results from distilling 158 grains of Newcastle coal from which he obtained 180 cubic inches of air (gas!), which weighted 51 grains [4]. Lavoisier cites these experiments with "elastic fluids" [5] but apart from an scientific interest nobody thought of transferring this knowledge into an every days useful product. The occurrence of "damp air" in a coal pit, which could be inflamed by the flame of a candle, but not by sparks, was first described 1733 in "An Account of the Damp Air in a Coal Pit of Sir James Lowther, sunk within Twenty Yards of the Sea". [6]. Unfortunately, although it was difficult to inflame the "damp air" by sparks it occasionally happened with a disastrous effect. The "damp air" obviously was a danger for the miners and eventually gave birth to the invention of the safety lamp by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1815.  

The Philosophical Transactions of 1739 are referring to a letter that must have been written before 1691. This letter describes that Dr. John Clayton, Dean from Kildare, after having visited the well close to Wigan, was distilling coal he took from this well and discovered that the "spirit of the coal" was inflammable [7]. Also others, like Dr. Richard Watson in 1767 [8] experimented with coal gas but no practical application came to their mind. In the year 1784 a Mr. Diller exhibited in London and other large towns, what he denominated "Philosophical Fire Works", which he produced by the combustion of the inflammable gases, and they were deemed a great curiosity [9]. 

In 1786 Lord Dundonald in 1786 his attention to the volatile products escaping from the coke ovens that were in operation on his land in Culross-Abbey for the production of tar. He collected tar by cooling the gases, whereas his workers figured out to catch the gases with a tube and to ignite the gases in order to illuminate their work space. [10]

William Murdoch (1754–1839), was born at Bellow Mill, near Old Cumnock, Ayrshire, (Scotland) on 21 Aug. 1754 as second son of John Murdoch, millwright. Murdoch altered the spelling of his name after his arrival in England, on account of the inability of the Englishmen to give it the true guttural pronunciation. [11] At school he excelled in mathematics, while he learned his practical engineering by helping his father. In 1777 the 23 year old William Murdoch walked the 300 miles to the Soho Foundry in Birmingham to ask James Watt for a job. Within a year Murdoch was being trusted to fit and erect steam engines on customers' premises. On his first solo job in Wanlockhead, he made a number of changes to the steam engine he was erecting that improved on the basic design that had emerged from the foundry. In September 1779 Murdoch moved to Redruth in Cornwall to supervise the erection, maintenance and repair of the increasing number of Boulton & Watt steam engines in Cornish tin mines. During the 1780s Murdoch worked on a number of improvements on the basic design of steam engines, including a "steam wheel" that, if properly developed, could have brought the steam turbine into use far earlier than it was. More immediately successful was his "sun and planet gear", which allowed steam power to be turned into a truly circular motion. [12] As Murdoch was an employee of Boulton & Watts, James Watt applied for the patent and was credited for this invention. The sun and planet gear patent allowed to bypass the patent on the crank and flywheel, already held by James Pickard.

While erecting steam engines in Cornwall, Murdoch repeated the experiments of Clayton and collected the gas in pig's bladders to use it in a lamp. In 1792 finally, he was able to steadily illuminate his sitting room and offices in Redruth, Cornwall [13]. Although the chronology of these events were questioned before a parliamentary committee in 1809 and Murdoch may have used indoor lightening only after his return to Soho [14].

Anyway, around 1798/1799 Murdoch moved back to Soho [15] where, he scaled up this technology. The first apparatus to generate gas in Soho was running in the Soho-foundry in 1798, [16] but it took some years to perfect the apparatus. In 1803 the Soho-foundry replaced all their oil lamps with gas lamps. The illumination of Philipp & Lee in Salford close to Manchester, a spinning plant, and the one of Henry Lodge in Halifax followed in 1805.

The Philips and Lee's cotton mill with many adjacent buildings, were illuminated with coal gas to the exclusion of lamps, candles and other sources of artificial light. Nearly a thousand  burners of different forms were employed ; and the light produced was estimated equal to that of 2500 well managed candles of six to the pound. The cost of the coal used to furnish the gas, amounting annually to 110 tons, was 125 Pound Sterling. Forty tons of coals to heat the retort, 20 Pound Sterling, and the interest and capital sunk, with due allowance for accidents and repairs, 550 Pound Sterling. From the joint amount of these items, must be deducted the value of seventy tons of coke, amounting to 93 Pound Sterling which reduces the total annual expense to 602 Pound Sterling while that of the candles to give the same light, would amount to 2000 Pound Sterling. [17] 

However, every building that wanted to use gas for its illumination needed its own little gas work. [18] Despite the initial success and demand for the technology, Boulton and Watt lost interest in the business around 1810, preferring to focus on their steam engines and to develop a new form of steam engine for marine use [19]. In 1810 James Murdoch became a partner in Boulton & Watt, and from 1817 he took a leading role in the company's efforts to apply its expertise to marine engineering. The result was the production of steam engines for around 50 ships in the years to 1825.[20]

In France Philippe Lebon tried in 1801 to interest the public in his thermolamp, a distillation oven producing wood gas for illumination purposes and for a gas machine. Due to his early death in 1804 he did not have the time to develop it as a business, but his endeavour to get wider public attention resulted in several reports of his invention, also published also abroad. The German Zachäus Andreas Winzler (1750-1830?), having studied philosophy, theology and medicine, later shifting his interest into chemistry and metallurgy, was intrigued by the thermolamp after reading a number of reports in journals and newspapers. He already built in 1802 a demonstration model and was able to inspire others. In the end due to interruptions by the French-Austrian war and technical draw backs Winzler completely disappeared from the historical record after 1817 [21]. 

Friederich Albert Winzer (1763-1830) was born in Brunswick (Germany). He appears to have been primarily a company-promoting "expert" [22]. When he read about Philippe Lebon's thermolamp he saw the chance for a lucrative business and went to Paris to get more information about the thermolamp. He obviously saw the greatest chances to make money with this technology in England. Having anglicised his name to Frederick Albert Winsor he promoted lightening gas between 1803 and 1804 in the public. His perseverance and sanguine temper are said to have been of the greatest service in making the matter known to the public. [23].

In the first advertisements, and subsequent pamphlets, published by Mr. Winsor, to attract the public attention to his plan , he lays claim to Gas -lighting, &c., as his “ discovery , ” and his “ invention ; " yet those who knew him best never gave him credit for so much ingenuity ; for, according to their account of his qualifications, he possessed scarcely any knowledge of chemistry, and was so deficient in mechanical information , that he was unable to give proper directions for the construction of apparatus. The probability is, that all the information he possessed relating to the subject of Gas he derived, by some means, chiefly from M. Le Bon. [24] Winsor later acknowledges that he had "offered M. Le Bon one hundred Louis d'ors for a model of his stove [25]

On May 1804 Winsor obtained a patent for an "improved oven, stove, or apparatus for the purpose of extracting inflammable air, oil, pitch tar, and acids. In 1806 Winsor removed his exhibition to 97 Pall Mall, where in early 1807 he lighted up a part of one side of the street [26]. He promoted "The New Patriotic Imperial and National Light and Heat Company", promising for each 5 Pound Sterling deposit a return of 570 Pound Sterling [27]. in 1809 Winsor supported the Light and Heat Company's application to parliament for charter. Winsor raised nearly 50.000 pounds by the subscription for establishing his New Light and Heat Company ; but large as was the amount he was not enriched by it, for the whole was expended upon his projects [28]. It appears that neither being a scientist nor a having mechanical skills he surrounded himself with people that should substitute for this lack of skills. But as he was not able to instruct them properly [29], money was wasted without any signs of significant progress.

In his promotional material, Winsor explicitly cited London’s water network, and the New River Company in particular, as the model that the fledgling gas industry should follow. Winsor recommended not only the integrated system of mains supplying water into houses, but also the business model that water companies had used.[30] Although water works in London were delivering water to businesses (breweries, stables), public fountains, and sometimes individual houses for wealthy costumers for centuries, the New River company in 1800 was reaching only 30-40% of the houses [31]

Even having moderated the terms of his prospectus his financial scheme for the Light and Heat Company was ridiculed by William Murdock, James Watt the younger and Henry Brougham on their behalf[32].The application terminated unsuccessfully, and probably the failure may be attributed to the impressions produced by the puffing extravagancies of Mr. Winsor and partly by the defective or erroneous evidence given by Mr. Accum and others. [33] The second bill to authorize his Majesty to grant the company a charter when the conditions in this act were met was obtained on 9 June 1810. This act introduced obligations to protect the investors, such that the company could only act if at least 50% of the capital was subscribed. The company's service area was limited to London, (City of London?), Westminster, Southwark, and the suburbs adjacent. [34] The Gas Light and Coke Company (GLCC), or as it was chartered by his Majesty, also called the Chartered Gas Company, started in 1812.

Unlike canals and roads, GLCC owned its entire network from gasworks to burners (or lamps) spread around the city. Lacking a model to emulate, the founders of the company did not even initially conceive of the network as an integrate whole, with two or three large plants supplying the entire city, but rather as many smaller gas plants, each feeding about 100-150 lamps in its vicinity. As the numbers of costumers grew and he difficulties and costs of buying or renting premises became evident, the idea of multiplying mill-sized gasworks throughout the city soon gave way to the large station model. [34] 

Winsor was one of the directors of the "Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company.  When being confronted with his own idea to scale up production of gas from a single illumination installation with tubes stretching only across a factory even to a small network of tubes for as little as 100 illumination burners (lamps) technical he utterly failed to find solutions for the technical and even administrative problems which emerged. For example in a single installation with a relatively small oven gas could be produced in a relatively efficient manner. However, it does not suffice to build this oven 100 times bigger to produce 100 times more gas. With such a primitive approach the efficiency drops dramatically.  

The lack of technical progress made the other directors to appoint in early 1813 Samuel Clegg as an engineer for GLCC. [35]. Samuel Clegg was an assistant to Murdoch at Boulten & Watts. In 1805 he left Boulton & Watts and installed some gas illuminations, the first being in the cotton mill of H. Lodge, esq. near Halifax in Yorkshire. [36]. As , to put it mildly, Winsor had not only beautified his calculations in order to get the bill passed, he also had committed to provide the gas for street lightening at a price that was below the costs for candles or oil. Experience had now demonstrated the delusive nature of the statements of Mr. Winsor, that GLCC could not afford to light the streets at the price for which they contract, without also lightening private houses on an extended scale [37].

The problem with offering a gas subscription to private homes was, that there were no meter in place to measure the private consumption so that GLCC had to offer its gas at a flat rate, and we can guess how ingenious people are, profiting from a flat rate. To counter this problem Samuel Clegg invented the first gas meter [38], later perfected by Samuel Crosley [39]. The gas meter gave the company the satisfaction  to know that every cubic foot of gas that passes through must be paid for; besides by its enabling the consumer to burn any number of lights, and in any way what his taste or occasion may require, it is a satisfaction for the costumer to know that he is paying for the quantity he alone uses, and not for the waste of his neighbours. It is an interesting point of view that the introduction of gas meters made the use of gas more attractive. [40] 

With the delivery to private homes a notorious issue of gas lightening turned into a problem. While lightening streets in the open air, the smell of the by-products of gas was tolerated it was unacceptable in one's own home. Samuel Clegg picked up the idea of washing the gas with cream of lime, a mixture of water and lime, as the means of purifying coal gas from sulphuretted hydrogen proposed by Dr. Henry in 1805 and constructed a device to do that in a larger scale, for which he got granted a patent in 1816. [41]

Another issue that was not a problem with a single installation feeding one or two burners was the random behaviour of the consumers in a network. The variations of consumption in different parts of the network caused pressure variations, which affected the brightness of the lamps. Samuel Clegg therefore invented a self-acting governor to regulate the density and flow of the gas, whatever might be the irregularity in the pressure of the gasometer. [41]


In 1817 at the three stations belonging to the chartered Gas-light Company, situated in Peter-street, Westminster, in Worship-street and in Norton Falgate, twenty-five chaldrons of coals were carbonised daily, which actually yield 300.000 cubical feet of gas, equal to the supply of 75,000 Argand's lamps, each lamp giving the light of six candles. In this report it is suggested that if the full proportion of gas were obtained , the twenty-five chaldron of coal should produce 500,000 cubical feet of gas. [45]. So there was still margin for the improvement of the efficiency of the gas distillation.

Gas lightening was now extending so rapidly, that the quantity of gas produced was inadequate to the demand, and hence originated some ingenious and useful contrivances and plan with regard to retorts. [42]. Developments at Westminster were followed by the rapid expansion of gas works and their Companies across London and other cities and large towns in England and Wales. By 1830, there were 200 gas Companies, by 1850 there 800 gas Companies, 13 of which were in London, and by 1860 there were nearly 1,000 gas Companies. [46]


Winsor returned to Paris and Germany to promote his ideas there.

It has to be acknowledged that Frederick Winsor seems to have been the first with the vision to sell lightening gas to a broader public by having a central gas production facility and distributing the gas via a network of tubes to individual subscribers.

Winsors "representation may justly be deemed extravagant and deceptive, and certainly exposed him to ridicule and suspicion ; but it must be allowed that his efforts tended, in a high degree, to fix public attention to gas-lighting ; and whatever were the motives of his conduct, the result has proved singularly beneficial to the world" [44, page 30].

Winsor proceeded  1815 to Paris and set to work at once to found a gas-lightening company in that city [50]. His installations in 1817 were not a success [51] and his company was liquidated in 1819. The Manby-Wilson company eventually installed the first successful gas-works in Paris about 1928 [52], 20 years later than in London.



Town gas was introduced for illuminating purposes, although the efficiency of town gas to produce visible light was poor. But so was the efficiency of oil lamps and candles town gas was substituting. As town gas became under pressure by electric light Carl Auer von Welsbach invented of the gas mantle in 1885 which radically improved the brightness of town gas operated lamps.

It is rather intriguing that it took several 100 years from the discovery of inflammable gases to an industrial application. An explanation for this phenomena is given in [53]. On<input type="image" class="c-inputButton" name="_savedokview" src="" title="Save document and view page" /> the other hand, if we look at the discovery of smelting iron it took several 1000 years to scale it up to an industrial process. 

Energy costs in 1876

Town gas in Germany


[1] Thomas Edison quoted in New York Herald, 30 January 1879, in The Thomas Edison Papers, Special Collection Series, Charles Bachelor Collection, Scrapbooks: Cat 1241 (1871-81), item 1119. The document identification is MBSB211119, available at (accessed 15 July 2022)

[2] William Matthews, "An Historical Sketch of the Origin, Progress, & Present State of Gas-Lighting,; London, Rowland Hunter, 1827; page 3.

This source is particularly interesting as the author personally was visiting Mr. Murdoch's exhibition on gas lights in Soho in 1802. A friend of the author was investing in Winsor's scheme and the author interviewed a contemporary witness who lived in Soho at the time. He also collected a plurality of documents, from proceedings, enquiries etc. and thus is the most competent source for the early beginnings of the gas industry in England.

[3] Ibid., page 4.

[4] Ibid., page 7-8.

[5] Ibid., page 7 footnote.

[6] Ibid., page 9.

[7] Clayton, Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775) , 1739 - 1741, Vol. 41 (1739 - 1741), pp. 59- 61

[8] William Matthews, ibid., page 17. 

[9] Ibid., page 18 footnote. 

[10] Dr. Nicolaus Heinrich Schilling, "Handbuch für Steinkohlengas-Beleuchtung", 3rd Volume, 1879, Prof. Dr. Friedrich Knapp, Chapter 1, "Zur Geschichte der Gasbeleuchtung" (The history of gas illumination).

Prof. Dr. Friederich Knapp was a German university professor for chemistry and also wrote a book on chemical technology. His chapter on the history of gas lightening also comprises some embellishments, which we know are not correct. So for example he states that Lebon was found shot, either by the hand of a murderer or by his own hand.

[11] Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39, "Frederick Albert Winsor" by Richard Bissel Prosser published also on Wikisource

[12] William Murdoch: Biography on Undiscovered Scotland

[13] William Matthews, ibid., page 22.

[14] Dictionary of National Biography, "Frederick Albert Winsor", ibid.

[15] Friedrich Knapp in [10], ibid.

[16] William Matthews, ibid., page 22.

[17] Brande, On the Application of Coal and Gas &c.; The Journal of Science And The Arts,  later renamed to The Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature and Arts ; edited by the Royal Institution of Great Britain, 1817, Vol. 1, page 73.


[19] Leslie Tomory, Gaslight, Destillation, And The Industrial Revolution, Hist. Sci., xlix (2011)

[20] William Murdoch: Biography on Undiscovered Scotland

[21] Dr. Nicolaus Heinrich Schilling, "Handbuch für Steinkohlengas-Beleuchtung", 3rd Volume, 1879, Prof. Dr. Friedrich Knapp, Chapter 1, "Zur Geschichte der Gasbeleuchtung" (The history of gas illumination).

[22] Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 62 - Winsor, Frederick Albert.

Most of the information seems to have its source in [1]


[24] William Matthews, ibid, page 28.

[25] William Matthews, ibid. page 28 foot note.

[26] William Mathews, ibid, page 33.

[27] William Matthews, ibid, page 45 foot note.

[28] William Matthews, ibid, page 36

[29] William Matthews, ibid, page 32

[30] William Matthews, ibid, page 33.

[31] Tomory, Leslie. (2015). London’s water supply before 1800 and the roots of the networked city. Technology and Culture. 56. 704-737. 

[32] Dictionary of National Biography, , ibid. 

[33] William Matthews, ibid, page 54, 55

[34] William Matthews, ibid, page 56

[35] Leslie Tomory, Progressive Enlightenment; Frederick Albert Winsor, To Be Sanctioned by Act of Parliament

[36] William Matthews, ibid, page 65.

[37] William Matthews, ibid, page 40.

[38] William Matthews, ibid, page 70, foot note.

[39] William Metthews, ibid, page 75.

[40] William Matthews, ibid page 77 foot note. 

[41] William Mathews, ibid, page 74 foot note.

[42] William Matthews, ibid, page 72.

[43] William Matthews, ibid, page 79.

[xx] J. A. Hassan, "The Growth and Impact of the British Water Industry in the Nineteenth Century", 1985 in The Economic History Review, 38(4), 531. doi: 10.230/2597187 

[xx] Leslie Tomory, "Building the First Gas Network", 1812-1820

[45] William Matthews, ibid, page 30

[46] William Matthews, ibid, page 30.

[47] Brande, On the Application of Coal and Gas &c.; The Journal of Science And The Arts,  later renamed to The Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature and Arts ; edited by the Royal Institution of Great Britain, 1817, Vol. 1, page 77.

[50] Dictionary of National Biography, "Frederick Albert Winsor", ibid.

[51] A small installation by Windsor in the Luxembourg gardens to light the senat, which was not working without technical difficulties (see Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, “Gaz, gazomètres, expertises et controverses. Londres, Paris, 1815-1860”).

[52] Dictionary of National Biography, "Frederick Albert Winsor", ibid.

[53] Morris Berman, Social change and scientific organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (Ithaka, 1978), p. 146.

[xx] "Das neue Buch der Erfindungen, Gewerbe und Industrien", Band V, Verlagsbuchhandlung von Otto Spamer, Leipzig und Berlin 1867.

As a historical source the information in this book has to treated with caution. The narrative style is often lurid and events are misrepresented to create sensations. Winsor is depicted almost as an investment fraudster. It is obviously true tat Winsor, was not a man of science and was not able to live up to his promises. On the other hand he did not run away with the money he was able to collect, but spent it, albeit with little success to improve the rejection of lightning gas due to its impugning smell.