America’s first public street lamp (fueled by manufactured gas) illuminated Market Street in Baltimore, Maryland, in early 1817. The Gas Light Company of Baltimore thus became the first U.S. commercial gas lighting company by distilling tar and wood to manufacture its gas.
Today, a small monument to the company and its street lamp stands at the corner of North Holliday Street and East Baltimore Street (once Market and Lemon streets). Dedicated in 1991, the lamp is a 175th anniversary replica of the original 1817 design.
In 1816, noted local inventor, artist and museum founder Rembrandt Peale first illuminated a room in his Holliday Street museum a year earlier, burning his artificial gas and dazzling local businessmen and socialites gathered there with a “ring beset with gems of light.”
“Taking after a natural history museum that his father, Charles Wilson Peale, started in Philadelphia in 1786, Rembrandt Peale displayed collections of fossils and other specimens, as well as portraits of many of the country’s founding fathers that his family had painted,” notes a historian for Explore Baltimore Heritage.
“During a candlelit period in American history the forward-thinking Peale aimed to form a business around his gas light innovations, the exhibition targeting potential investors,” adds another historian at the utility Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E). The manufactured gas gamble worked, and several financiers aligned with Peale, forming The Gas Light Company of Baltimore, BG&E’s precursor.
“Less than a year later, on February 7, 1817, the first public gas street lamp was lit in a ceremony one block south of City Hall,” notes BG&E.
The impressed city council speedily approved Peale’s plan to light more of the city’s streets. BG&E also credits Baltimore inventor Samuel Hill for establishing America’s first gas meter manufacturing company in 1832. Two years later the first meters were installed. The company petitioned the city to begin laying underground pipelines in 1851.
Over coming decades, two miles of gas main would be completed under Baltimore streets and the company showed its first profit. Metering replaced flat-rate billing, helping residents afford lighting their homes with gas.
By 1855, a new gas manufacturing plant was constructed to distill gas from coal – an improvement over the former “gasification” of tar or wood. Manufacturing gas from coal had earlier proved successful in Philadelphia.
Coal Gas brightens Philadelphia
Forty-six lights burning manufactured “coal gas” were lit on February 8, 1836, along Philadelphia’s Second Street by employees of the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works. As Philadelphia became the nation’s center for finance and industry, the municipally owned gas distribution company began a series of gas-manufacturing innovations.
By 1856, Philadelphia Gas completed construction of a gas tank at the company’s Point Breeze Plant in South Philadelphia. At the time it was the largest in the nation with a total holding capacity of 1.8 million cubic feet.
When the American Centennial Exposition of 1876 displayed the wonders of the age in agriculture, horticulture and machinery, gas cooking was showcased as a novelty. Sixty miles of pipe brought manufactured gas to the exhibition’s lamps.
Natural Gas Lights
The earliest commercial use of natural gas in a community, according to most historians, took place in Fredonia, New York, in 1825.
Natural gas was piped to several stores, shops and a mill from a downtown natural gas well drilled by William Hart, who some consider as the father of the natural gas industry.
Hart made three attempts at drilling, according to Lois Barris in her history of the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company, which incorporated in 1857.
“He left a broken drill in one shallow hole and abandoned a second site at a depth of forty feet because of the small volume of gas found,” she reports.
“In his third attempt, Mr. Hart found a good flow of gas at seventy feet,” Barris adds. “He then constructed a crude gasometer, covering it with a rough shed and proceeded to pipe and market the first natural gas sold in this country.”
Today in the United States, there are more than 900 public natural gas systems serving more than 70 million customers; the Philadelphia Gas Works is the largest. Learn more about the early natural gas industry in Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh and Indiana Natural Gas Boom.
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