The Invention of Coal-Lit Lamps, called “Illuminating Gas”

Jeannette Holland Austin
6 min readAug 16, 2022

“How wonderful that sunbeams absorbed by vegetation in the primordial ages of the earth and buried in its depths as vegetable fossils through immeasurable eras of time, until system upon system of slowly formed rocks have been piled above, should come forth at last, at the disenchanting touch of science, and turn the light of civilised man into day.” — Prof. E. L. Youmans.

“The invention of artificial light has extended the available term of human life, by giving the night to man’s use; it has, by the social intercourse it encourages, polished his manners and refined his tastes, and perhaps as much as anything else, has aided his intellectual progress.” — Draper.

Considering all of the ado today concerning the use of coal and petroleum to light our way, and to propel our movements in the modern age, it is noteworthy to recall how mankind struggled in search of these commodities. It took a long while to arrive at the inventions of the 18th and 19th centuries! Yet, when we did, our world was light with a long-sustaining progression into the nuclear energies.

But let us take a peep into the past and imagine how it was to walk on a dark street at night in London.

“If one desires to know what the condition of cities, towns and peoples was before the nineteenth century had lightened and enlightened them, let him step into some poor country town in some out-of-the-way region (and such may yet be found) at night, pick his way along rough pavements, and no pavements, by the light of a smoky lamp placed here and there at corners, and of weeping lamps and limp candles in the windows of shops and houses, and meet people armed with tin lanterns throwing a dubious light across the pathways”

The undesirable part of this life-style was the odors from undrained gutters, ditches and roads. One could easily stumble in the dark streets and encounter the drippings from overhanging eaves or windows not to mention falling upon the slippery steps of a dim doorway.

But people had light. They carried lamps as they walked along. Occasionally a glowing grate might be encountered from glowing furnaces of coal in which the ore was melted and by the light of which the castings were made. The hard black coal would break down under the influence of heat and burst into flames which lit up every corner. The vapor was made to give light and heat.

Jeannette Holland Austin

Author of 100+ genealogy books. Owner of 8 genealogy websites available by subscription.