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Learning at Black Country Living Museum

The history and impact of manufactured gas


The manufactured gas industry was to play an important role in the industrial revolution:

  • It originated in and helped inspire the burgeoning discipline of pneumatic chemistry.
  • It lit up early factories, making them brighter, cheaper and safer to operate.
  • It lit up the streets of the new industrial towns, cutting down costs and reducing crime.
  • It brought light to the homes of many.
  • It inspired new product design and invention – not only  in the development of lighting, but also cooking and heating.
  • It was an early example of a large integrated urban network – a precursor to the railway .

Although the gas industry originated in the experiments of early pneumatic chemists,  it took the entrepreneurial skills and business acumen of key 19th century industrialists to convert it into an urban utility network. Even though the properties of inflammable gases were discovered and trialed in several countries simultaneously it was Britain that first converted this into a successful industrial process.


Find out More

Click on the links to find out more about the work of gas industry historians and experts, including slides from their contributions to the 2014 "It's a Gas!" conference at the Museum.

A New Wave of the Industrial Revolution: The Birth of the Gas Industry 1780-1840

/media/learning/library/gas-leslie-tomory.jpgDr Leslie Tomory argues that the gaslight industry that emerged during the Industrial Revolution in Europe between 1780 and 1820, represented a new phase in the industrialization of the West. He demonstrates how this new industry presented a series of characteristics that were different from the technologies and industries traditionally emphasized in historiography of the Industrial Revolution. It was unique because of its relationship to contemporary science, the sources of its funding, its status as an integrated infrastructure network, and its corporate organization. All this helped create the world's first modern mulit-national company - a designation usually given to the railways.

Dr Leslie Tomory

Leslie Tomory studied aerospace engineering at the University of Toronto and McGill University. After working some time in the aerospace and IT industries, he became a consultant in the non-profit sector. He completed his PhD in the history of technology at the University of Toronto in 2009. His thesis was published by MIT Press in 2012 as Progressive Enlightenment: The Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780–1820. He was a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at McGill University until 2013 and is now a research affiliate. Besides his non-profit work, he continues to do research in the history of technology, and is completing his second book on the history of London's water industry before 1800.

Gas in the Black Country and Birmingham

/media/learning/library/gas-conference-bclm-_-thumbnail-_-dr-chris-upton.jpgDr Chris Upton gives an overview of the social impact and the politics of gas supply in the 19th century. 

Dr Chris Upton

Dr Chris Upton is Reader in Public History at Newman University, Birmingham, specialising in the history of the West Midlands region. Previously he taught at the Universities of Aston and Birmingham, and worked in the Archives &
Heritage section of Birmingham Central Library. Chris is the author of four books on West Midlands history, all published by Phillimore & Co., including volumes on Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Lichfield. His most recent book is Living Back to Back, a study of back-to-back housing. Chris was the researcher on the project to restore the court of back-to-backs in Hurst Street for the National Trust. Chris is shortly to complete a book on Birmingham and its Poor 1740-1840. In addition, Chris writes two weekly columns for the Birmingham Post, and makes regular appearances on TV and radio.

 Tipton Gas Works 1954-1960


A description of the production processes of the former gas works at Tipton by employee David Humphries.

Reluctant Innovators? Boulton, Watt & Co and Factory Gas Lighting

If William Murdock had not been a valued employee of /media/learning/library/gas-conference-bclm-_-thumbnail-_-jennifer-tann.jpg

Boulton Watt & Co. it is unlikely that this well-known steam engine manufacturing firm would have moved into the business of industrial gas lighting. It was almost grudgingly that they took the decision to enter the market. There was impetus in the requirement for a safer form of factory lighting than either candles or oil lamps for evening and night work. Factory fires were common and these forms of lighting contributed to the risk; fire insurance premiums had escalated. The first gas lighting plants were supplied to industrial leaders of the textile industries, owners of the first multi-storey factories and, interestingly, a number of them had fire-proof mills; innovation was heady stuff. There was a sense of excitement amongst the early adopters of gas lighting, some of whom enthusiastically undertook controlled experiments. Boulton Watt & Co. were active in gas lighting between 1803 and 1814, during which time Murdock developed the technology. The running costs of gas lighting were found to be far lower than candles or oil, but the high capital costs put off all but the largest manufacturers from seeking a Murdock/Boulton Watt & Co. solution. Many of the initial engineering design problems were solved, however, and it was left to others to specialise in the gas lighting industry. 


Professor Jennifer Tann

Jennifer Tann is Professor Emerita of Innovation at the University of Birmingham. She was Director of the Doctoral Programme, then Director of Research at the Business School; previous academic positions being held at the Universities of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Aston. She has been a visiting professor at the University of Queensland, Australia and at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and has travelled widely to universities in Australia, the USA and Canada giving seminars and public lectures. Her research has addressed both historic and contemporary innovation. Her Boulton & Watt research led to invitations to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Power House Museum in Sydney. She has published numerous books and papers. She delivered the Dickinson Memorial Lecture in the London Science Museum in 2014.

The Rise of the Gas Cooker

/media/learning/library/gas-conference-_-thumbnail-_-david-eveleigh.jpgThis lecture traces the development of the gas cooker from its first faltering steps in the early 1800s to the 1930s by which time 90% of British households cooked by gas. It analyses how the fortunes of cooking by gas were transformed within a relatively short period in the late nineteenth century by an alliance of gas companies, stove manufacturers, scientists, professional cooks and                                          schools of cookery.

David J. Eveleigh

David J. Eveleigh has over thirty years of experience of working in the museum sector. He has written some twenty five articles, books and other publications reflecting his wide ranging interests, including local studies, nineteenth century social history and the history of everyday things. Among his books is "Bogs, Baths & Basins, the Story of Domestic Sanitation" published by the History Press. He also recently wrote and presented a DVD "Victorian Household Technology" produced by the University of the West of England. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, A Fellow of the Museums Association and Board Member of the Association of European Open Air Museums. He also currently sits on the Council of the Society for Folk Life Studies and on the editorial board of the magazine, West Midlands History.

Gas production technology - past, present and future

  From first-hand knowledge, Chris Hodrien outlines the /media/learning/library/gas-conference-bclm-_-thumbnail-_-chris-hodrien.jpg

  trajectory of the development of manufactured gas  

  production technology from 1800 to the present day and

  into the near future. He gives special emphasis to the

  now-near-forgotten UK modern "High Speed Gas" town-

  gas era 1960-1980 and the successful UK export to the

  USA of oil-based Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG) Technology in 1972-1978. for the future, he also compares decarbonised SNG and hydrogen technologies and shares details of his own radical proprietary "green SNG" technology.

Chris Hodrien

Chris has spent a 41-year career in cutting-edge gas production research, in which the UK has played a leading role in all periods, and has also been heavily involved in the study of gas production history.



Professor Harris provides an overview of the work of the University of Birmingham and their research into rare earth magnets and fuel cell technologies with particular emphasis on the use of hydrogen as a processing agent and as a means of energy storage. To test the viability of these technologies, the University has constructed a hydrogen-powered canal boat, Ross Barlow, which they hope will provide an effective model for future, zero carbon, waterways travel and for cleaner shipping in general.

Professor Rex Harris

Rex is Professor of materials Science and Leader - applied Alloy Chemistry Group - at the School of Metallurgy and Materials, University of Birmingham. He has a particular interest in the use of hydrogen in materials processing and as an energy vector, and the processing, properties and applications of permanent magnets based on rare earth-transition metal alloys. He is also project leader for the University's hydrogen-powered canal boat project, which encapsulates his hydrogen and magnets research interests.

Future Directions

/media/learning/library/gas-conference-bclm-thumnail-_-des-correia.jpg As consumers, we want energy to be affordable. As    a society, we want our supplies to be secure and reliable.  And as responsible global citizens, we want power to be  clean, green and low-carbon. The "energy trilemma" - a  term coined by the World Energy council - sums up our  difficulty in finding a balance between these aspects.

In the UK we are using more and more sources of energy to provide power. In the short term natural gas and renewables are expected to fill the gap left by a decreasing use of coal and oil. Decreasing output of North Sea gas means that the UK will need to rely on either imported gas or new sources of onshore gas. Natural gas from unconventional sources is receiving considerable attention at present - does it present a real possibility as a transitional fuel in the short to medium term?

Des Correia

Des is the Director, Energy: Unconventional Hydrocarbons at Ove Arup and Partners Limited in Birmingham. He has worked in the United Kingdom, Botswana, Nigeria, Qatar and South Africa on wide-ranging projects including nuclear facilities, thermal power generation, coal gasification plants, mining, petroleum pipelines, high speed rails, airports, ports and defence facilities. He is currently involved in the unconventional gas sector and has recently completed the first two Environmental Risk and Environmental Impact Assessments for shale gas exploration wells in the United Kingdom.


Did you know?

interesting fact image

The museum owns over 740 laundry irons - which together weigh about the same as 9 newborn baby elephants.

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