Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Progressive Enlightenment

Progressive Enlightenment: The Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780-1820

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 360
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Progressive Enlightenment
    Book Description:

    InProgressive Enlightenment, Leslie Tomory examines the origins of the gaslight industry, from invention to consolidation as a large integrated urban network. Tomory argues that gas was the first integrated large-scale technological network, a designation usually given to the railways. He shows how the first gas network was constructed and stabilized through the introduction of new management structures, the use of technical controls, and the application of means to constrain the behavior of the users of gas lighting. Tomory begins by describing the contributions of pneumatic chemistry and industrial distillation to the development of gas lighting, then explores the bifurcation between the Continental and British traditions in distillation technology. He examines the establishment and consolidation of the new industry by the Birmingham firm Boulton & Watt, and describes the deployment of the network strategy by the entrepreneur Frederick Winsor. Tomory argues that the gas industry represented a new wave of technological innovation in industry because of its dependence on formal scientific research, its need for large amounts of capital, and its reliance on business organization beyond small firms and partnerships--all of which signaled a departure from the artisanal nature and limited deployment of inventions earlier in the Industrial Revolution. Gas lighting was the first important realization of the Enlightenment dream of science in the service of industry.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30124-4
    Subjects: History, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-6)

    Some of the most prominent features of the skyline of nineteenth-century London, including the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Parliament buildings, and Tower Bridge, continue to be visually notable in that city. Some of the largest edifices of nineteenth-century London, however, are no longer present, and survive only as a few skeletal frames. Those edifices never had any aesthetic value, and they long ago passed into desuetude, later to be torn down, cut up, and sold as scrap. These landmarks were the gasholders of the manufactured gas industry, built to store a day’s supply of gas for the light-hungry...


    • [I Introduction]
      (pp. 7-12)

      In November of 1801, Gregory Watt, the youngest son of James Watt, was spending some time in Paris. He had met a number of his father’s contacts there, and one of them took him to see an interesting and novel public display at the Hôtel de Seignelay. As Watt approached the building, he was greeted by the sight of bright flames streaming from Argand lamps mounted on the facade. Unlike the candles and oil lamps normally used for lighting, these lamps were fueled by inflammable gas brought by pipes from inside the building. Entering the building, Watt saw that the...

      (pp. 13-36)

      The degree to which the new technologies of the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century depended on contemporary natural and experimental philosophy has been much debated. Though it is generally accepted that technological development was at the very least helped by the use of methodologies learned from science, such as mathematics and systematic experimental investigation, there has been no consensus beyond these confines.⁸ Historians have generally resisted the idea that entirely new industries emerged at that time—industries based on technologies derived from contemporary science in ways that became more prevalent in the second half of the nineteenth...

      (pp. 37-64)

      The technological tradition that spawned gas lighting by borrowing knowledge and techniques from pneumatic chemistry was industrial distillation, particularly of wood and coal. Distillation had been used for commercial and industrial purposes for centuries, but interest in the process and in ways of improving it and adapting it to different uses was intensifying at the end of the eighteenth century. This was driven by a number of economic and related social factors, some of which also had regional characteristics. In some parts of Europe, deforestation, which had been occurring since the end of the Middle Ages, was reaching crisis proportions...


    • 3 BOULTON & WATT
      (pp. 67-116)

      The first commercialization of gas lighting was no trivial undertaking, as the efforts and failures of the Continental gaslight pioneers attest. It was a long way from having some idea of how the technology could work, and even from building demonstration apparatus, to commercial success—something that that was first achieved in Britain, as with so many other technologies of the Industrial Revolution. Craftsmen, engineers, and entrepreneurs were able to take what in many cases had been invented elsewhere and make the technology practical through a series of refinements, innovations, or micro-inventions, a process that differed from the original invention...


    • [III Introduction]
      (pp. 117-120)

      If Boulton & Watt thought of gas lighting only in terms of stand-alone gas plants for mills, how and why did gas technology assume the network form that came to define the industry in the nineteenth century? The roots of the network form date back once again to Lebon’s Parisian demonstration of his thermolamp. Besides Gregory Watt, Lebon received another visitor during his marketing days in Paris in whom his thermolamp struck a chord. This was a German merchant named Friedrich Winzer (changed to Frederick Winsor during his early residency in Britain) who had traveled from Frankfurt to Paris with the...

      (pp. 121-168)

      The dominant form that gaslight technology took on in the nineteenth century was the network model that originated with Winsor. Despite his pretensions, Winsor was devoid of almost any useful technical knowledge or talent, but he possessed an intensity of entrepreneurial energy and vision that none of the other gaslight pioneers had. The contrast with Boulton & Watt is important: although Boulton & Watt had tremendous resources at their disposal in form of business experience, money, skills, prestige, and a network of industrial customers, Watt Jr. and others at the firm lacked the almost prophetic commitment that marked Winsor’s approach to the...

      (pp. 169-238)

      Between 1812 to 1820, with remarkable rapidity, the Gas Light and Coke Company built a large urban gas network in London. This was a move away from the standalone plants the firm of Boulton & Watt was supplying. The work of that firm and that of its former employee Samuel Clegg was an important base from which the GLCC could expand, but there were many technical, business, and social issues in making the transformation. The new network model required coordination and integration at a level not required in the mill model. These began with the generation of gas. As Boulton & Watt...

    (pp. 239-244)

    Although historians have often emphasized the breadth of technological innovation in the Industrial Revolution, the historiography has been dominated by the classic technologies of the textile, coal, iron, and steam engine industries. This is due in part to the fact that economic historians focus on economic and productivity growth. Gas lighting, however, was an important macro-invention, and the gas industry grew rapidly from 1812 on, reaching nearly every town in Britain with a population over 10,000 by 1826. In its creation and its consolidation, gas lighting differed from most contemporary novel technologies in some important ways that indicate the emergence...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 245-318)
    (pp. 319-340)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 341-348)