Manufactured Gas - The Genie’s Legacy

To look at only once is to fall in love with gas, which gives a warm domestic radiance fit to eat by. . . . let the old mild lustre shine upon the eyes of man.
--Robert Louis Stevenson, "A Plea for Gas Lamps,"
Virginibus Puerisque (1881).

What fueled this gas lamp that Stevenson so eloquently pleaded for?  What was the source of this lustrous light?  It went by many names and served many functions:  Coal Gas, Illuminating Gas, Town Gas, Blue Gas, Domestic Gas, Water Gas, Carbureted Water Gas, Producer Gas, Manufactured Gas
Manufactured gas, so-called because it was produced from coal, was the marvel of its day – the golden flame that lit the Genie’s lamp. From the mid-19th to mid-20th century, manufactured gas fueled industry, lit our homes, and cooked our meals.  Although no longer widely used in the United States, the legacy of the manufactured gas industry lives on in many communities across the land.

2-methylnapthalene, Acenaphthylene, Ancenapthene, Anthracene, Arsenic., Benzene, Benzo(a)anthracene, Benzo(a)pyrene, Benzo(b)fluoranthene, Benzo(k)fluoranthene, Chromium, Chrysene, Cyanide, Dibenzo(a,h)anthracene, Dibenzofuran, Ethylbenzene, Fluoranthene, Fluorene, Indeno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene, Lead, Methylphenol, Napthalene, Phenanthrene, Phenols, Polynuclear / Polycyclical Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), Pyrene, Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOCs), Toluene, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Xylenes

These Chemicals of Concern (COCs), the waste products of the coal gas industry are the Genie’s legacy to 21st century America. At thousands of abandoned Manufactured Gas Plant (MGP) sites across the nation these and other hazardous substances pose a potential threat to the environment and to human health.
Arsenic, benzene, ethylbenzene, phenol, toluene, xylene, and certain of the PAHs, VOCs and SVOCs, all are found listed on the "1999 CERCLA List of Priority Hazardous Substances." Under the terms of CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), US Department of Health and Human Services, are required to maintain and update this list to assist the government and health care officials to monitor hazardous waste and superfund sites.

Arsenic., Benzene, Chromium, Cyanide, Ethylbenzene, Lead, Phenolics, Polynuclear / Polycyclical Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOCs), Toluene, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Xylene

These COCs, especially the PAHs, are found in the coal tar, sludge, and other waste products left over from the manufacture of coal gas. Coal tar and associated COCs were generated at all former MGP operations. Some sources indicate that from circa 1850 to circa 1960 over 50,000 manufactured gas plants operated in the United States. One source estimates that the manufactured gas industry generated tens of billions of gallons of coal tar during just 70 years, from ca. 1880 to 1950.

Many, if not all, of these substances are toxic to humans and animals if present at sufficient levels. Many of these substances are known carcinogens – others are suspect endocrinal disrupters

Although coal gas was first produced and consumed in Great Britain in 1792, inventive minds and entrepreneurs in the United States were quick to see the potential value of this fuel source. At the close of the 18th century, experiments using manufactured gas as a source of illumination were well underway in the United States. At first coal gas was seen as a novelty, or at most, a source of household illumination employed by the hobbyist who was amused by eccentric technologies. It was, however, from these small beginnings that the gas industry grew.

Among these early experiments with manufactured gas were those of the M. Ambroise & Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1796, the company, which specialized in the manufacture of fireworks, used coal gas to illuminate elaborate and fanciful chandeliers at a public gathering in a local amphitheater. In 1802, illuminating gas was used in a "sideshow" at the Haymarket Gardens in Richmond, Virginia.
In Baltimore, Maryland, one of the pioneers of the American gas industry opened the nation's eyes to the potential of this lighting source in 1816. In June of that year, artist Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) used coal gas to illuminate an exhibit at his museum and gallery. The novelty of gaslight was said to have aroused the public's admiration far more than the items Peale had placed on exhibit.

Peale's use of gas lighting was so well received that on July 17, 1816, the City of Baltimore passed an ordinance permitting Peale and his associates to manufacture gas, to lay distribution pipes, and to supply the city with coal gas for street lights. In February of 1817, Peale and associates chartered the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, the first coal gas company founded in the US.

In Newport Rhode Island, yet another pioneer of the manufactured gas industry was at work. There along the shores of Narragansett Bay, David Melville began introducing coal gas into the homes and factories of the Northeast. As early as 1813, Melville had used coal gas, generated from a small backyard plant, to light his own home. By 1813 he had obtained a patent for his method of  manufacturing coal gas and had convinced the owners of small textile mills in Watertown, MA and Pawtucket, RI, to install gaslights in their factories.

Based upon the success of this operation and consumer demand for gas lighting, commercial plants soon sprang up across the nation. Most of these early manufactured gas plants were owned and operated by private-sector entrepreneurs. Many of these were small plants, built from kits that were manufactured in New York City, and shipped to communities throughout the country. By 1859, 297 manufactured gas companies existed in the US. These companies, capitalized at $42 million, served an estimated 4,857,000 customers.
The success of these small operations fueled an ever-growing demand for manufactured gas. The demand for coal gas among residential consumers grew at an amazing rate.  Soon the small kit-type plants were not sufficient to meet demand, and larger gas plants sprang up in cities and towns across the land. Concurrent with the industry's expansion to meet residential needs was a growing demand by industry. It did not take factory owners long to see the advantages of gas lighting and of gas powered engines. As demand grew, more and bigger manufactured gas plants were constructed to meet demand. It is estimated that by the mid-1870s, most American communities with a population of 10,000 or more were home to at least one manufactured gas plant.

By the time of the Great Centennial in 1876, manufactured gas had assumed an integral role in the nation's economy. Gas powered machinery helped drive the phenomenal growth of America's economy in the decades following the Civil War. Indeed, the use of manufactured gas by industrial consumers soon vastly outpaced the use of coal gas in the home. As the emphasis shifted from supplying residential customers to industrial consumers, the gas industry itself industrialized. Plants grew larger in size, and a wave of mergers and consolidations swept the industry. At the residential level, it was this period that witnessed the growth of municipally owned and operated manufactured gas plants.

New technologies were also developed during this time, which led to the manufacture of more efficient forms of coal gas, most notably carburetted water gas. One of the advantages of carburetted water gas was that it could be economically supplied to small and large markets alike. Indeed, it seems that the Roaring Twenties witnessed the peak of the manufactured gas industry in the US. Thus, we see in the period between 1900 and 1920 that gas plants, many of which were municipally owned, were constructed in communities with just a few thousand residents.

At the same time, advances in the manufacture of high pressure pipes and pumping systems led to a shake up in distribution technology in the nation's larger cities. The so-called "central station" distribution system came into being. No longer was it necessary to supply customers from small, neighborhood gas plants. Utility companies whether private or municipal could construct enormous gas plants and pipe their product under pressure over substantial distances to their customers.

The years between the end of WWI and the beginning of WWII witnessed the decline of the Manufactured Gas Industry. Natural gas, electricity, coal and petroleum products usurped many of the roles formerly played by manufactured gas in the industrial and residential sectors. No longer was coal gas the essential fuel that illuminated the nation's homes and factories--no longer did manufactured gas fuel the nation's factories. At the same time that demand for the gas itself declined, so too did demand for the by-products of gas plants as the chemical industry shifted to petroleum-based chemicals to supply its needs. During the post-WWII era, the nation grew ever more dependent upon oil and natural gas. As ever more and larger petroleum refineries were constructed and tens of thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines were laid, the coal gas industry continued its decline. A few manufactured gas plants continued in operation into the second half of the 20th century, supplying those few industrial operations that had not converted to other energy sources or other sources of feedstocks. The last plants to supply residential consumers with coal gas ceased operations by the mid-1960s.

More about Manufactured Gas Plants compiled by Heritage Research Center, Ltd. (PDF)