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Gas Lighting - Beyond the City

By: Bill Kibbel , Contributing Writer
In: Obsolete Design Elements, Old House Construction, Old House Terminology

In 1816, Baltimore, MD was the first US city to have gas lighting.  Using gas for lighting quickly spread to other cities and it was very common throughout the rest of the 19th century.  The gas was manufactured from the gasification of coal.  Late in the 19th century,  natural gas began to replace the “coal gas”.

Gas lighting was installed in factories, apartment buildings and homes.  Gas lights along city streets was known to reduce crime. But how is it possible for me to find evidence of gas lighting in buildings located in extremely rural areas?  I don’t find it often, but in several isolated farms and even in a small train station in a remote village, I found piping and fixtures for gas lighting.
The answer is that they made their own, on-site.

In 1862, it was discovered that calcium carbide decomposes in water and produces a flammable gas, called acetylene.  In the early 1890s,  calcium carbide was being commercially produced, after the invention of the electric furnace.  Coke and limestone are heated in the electric furnace to create calcium carbide (CaC2).

Late in the 19th century there were many inventors filing patents for “acetylene generators”.  These were self contained devices that generated and stored acetylene by either dropped pellets of calcium carbide into water, or dripped water onto the calcium carbide.  The gas was then captured in a “bell” that would rise and fall with the volume of gas.  The gas was then slightly pressurized and piped into the building.

Sure, there was the danger of explosion.  It was probably not a good idea to refill the generator at night, holding a candle or open flame lantern. Leaks could be an issue, but you would likely smell it . Acetylene has been described as having a nauseating odor, similar to rotten garlic.

One pound of calcium carbide could produce about 4.5 cubic feet of acetylene, making it cheaper to fuel lighting than oil, kerosene or “city gas”.  It also creates a brilliant white light, much brighter than with the other fuels available.

Acetylene wasn’t used for just lighting in buildings.  Early headlights on the Ford Model T were fueled from an acetylene generator mounted on the running board.  The old, brass minor’s helmet lamps were combination mini-generators and lights.

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  1. 9 Responses  to “Gas Lighting - Beyond the City”

  2. John
    Apr 29, 2014
    I have round gas generator in my farm house I would like to get more info on it and see if I can get it to work again.
  3. jenn
    Aug 29, 2011
    this aritcle was a great help
  4. jenn
    Aug 29, 2011
    I just found out that my parents house still have old gas lamp piping. The piping is still attached to the wall. I always wondered what those things were sticking out the wall growing up...now we know
  5. Geno Kearney
    Aug 29, 2011
    My home built circa 1867 has a small concrete structure about 40 feet from the back of the house. There is a pipe near the bottom of a wall that runs under the ground to the crawlspace of the house. One day an 80+ year old lady and said she lived here as a child. She called the little building a "carbyte house" (sic). I've since been told there was a carbide machine that converted water to gas for gas lights in the house, and that the building was concrete (even the roof) because of the risk of explosion. This article was a great source and I would like to learn more about it and see a picture of a residential machine if anyone could help. Thanks, Geno.
  6. Aug 29, 2011
    i recently learned that my old house (1893) was piped for carbide gas lighting. your article will help me explain how it works to the children that come here to tour an old house during the holidays. they always ask about electricity & plumbing. thank you!
  7. jerry whitten
    Aug 29, 2011
    like to know the name of the fixture with the 6 sided shade. I have the fixture but no shade. where can you get them. or any information on it. Thanks Jerry Whitten
  8. Aug 29, 2011
    Great read. I like visiting museums and since I live in the Baltimore area, I'll look for exibits on gas lighting of days past. Thanks for a good article Bill.
  9. Aug 29, 2011
    Thanks Steve. Acetylene was primarily used just for lighting (and welding). When electricity was available everywhere, even to very rural farms, acetylene was done. Electricity is cheaper, easier and safer for lighting. Acetylene generators are still manufactured, but the market is probably for only some remote undeveloped areas. There are some still in use for lighting in marine shipping channels. I read an article about someone using it as an alternative fuel for a car. I don't think it will catch on. It takes a tremendous amount of electricity to convert limestone and coke into calcium carbide.
  10. Aug 29, 2011
    Cool article, Bill. Is the method still in use? Wouldn't it be more efficient and safer to transport than propane?