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.