I am not all certain why I dove down the bunny hole of gas lighting (And no, I don’t mean gaslighting. My characters won’t be psychologically manipulating anyone! That’s just mean.) other than that the hero of the next historical is most probably a US Army engineer. (Yes, West Point was already turning them out in the early 1800s, probably only two or three a year but we don’t want to get picky about back story, do we?) The point is, I needed to know what kind of lighting my isolated manor might have and if it could be updated. And the answer is yes, yes it can. . .
Although it might be more fun if I made my hero a mad Scotsman like William Murdoch (or Murdock, depending on your nationality). Murdoch wasn’t the first to play with gas and fire, but he was the first to carry his experiments to fruition. Sir James Lowther in 1733 discovered the illuminating qualities of coal gas, if one was inclined to walk about
carrying a gas bladder and lighting it. I think he only tried once. It was up to our mad Scotsman to light up his whole house, terrify the vicar with his gas vehicle, and almost blow up his workshop.
Born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1754, Murdoch, the son of an artillery gunner and millwright, showed an early aptitude for math and mechanics. One of his teachers was the author of a highly-regarded arithmetic book, so he had a solid background from the get-go. On top of that, he had his father to teach him mechanical principles—the two Murdochs developed a tricycle run by cranks. There are reports he experimented with coal gas while still in Scotland, but no documentation. Still, if Lowther’s experiments were known, it’s entirely possible Murdoch had played with it as a child.
Aware of the fame of James Watt, the steam engine founder, Murdoch (changing his name to the English spelling of Murdock) walked 300 miles to Birmingham to apply for a job in 1777. Mad from the get-go, apparently! By 1779, he was so respected by the company that they sent him to Cornwall as the senior engineer for their engines which pumped water from tin mines.
Murdoch applied his skills to many inventions over the years but the one I wanted to know about was gas lighting. How does one turn coal gas into light?
According to various sources, while living in Redruth, Cornwall, managing the steam engine business, he put coal dust in the bowl of his pipe, and placed this in the fire. I mean, who but a mad scientist would do this? One assumes he already knew about Lowther’s experiments, but blowing oneself up with coal dust in a house occupied by wife and children. . .
Anyway, the dust formed coal gas which emerged from the pipe’s mouthpiece and produced flame. Murdoch had turned gas into light. From there, one assumes his inventive mind leapfrogged from one dangerous idea to another: From the account of William Fairbairn, Murdoch occasionally used his gas as a portable lantern:
"It was a dark winter's night and how to reach the house over such bad roads was a question not easily solved. Mr. Murdoch, however, fruitful in resource, went to the gasworks where he filled a bladder which he had with him, and, placing it under his arm like a bagpipe, he discharged through the stem of an old tobacco pipe a stream of gas which enabled us to walk in safety to Medlock Bank." (Because one always carries bladders about?) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Murdoch
After that, Murdoch experimented with replacing candles in his house with his new invention. He set up a large retort in the courtyard, ran a pipe through his window frame, and conducted the gas into the ceiling of his dining room above the table. Voila, cheap coal gas replaced pricey candles, and he had illumination for his dinner parties, as long as he didn’t blow them up.
By the 1800s, he’d set up his employer in Birmingham with gas lighting in their factory, allowing them to work longer hours and be more productive. Before long, most of the factories were using it. Just the kind of place my creative engineer needs to be!
Except now I have to figure out how my hero comes by coal gas. It’s created by burning coal inside a closed container, which separates into hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane, and operates on the same basic principle we use for camping stoves. Like I know how that works, right?
Writing about an engineer will be tough! I may have to drop him down a well and find someone a little easier, but he needs an occupation of some sort. He’s an American after all, and we weren’t so much into the leisure classes back then. Do you want to read about coal gas in a Regency or do you have any better ideas for keeping my guy occupied and out of trouble?