Little Bits of History

Lighting the Night

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 28, 2011

London street, lit by gas lights

January 28, 1807: The first street is lit by gas light. Pall Mall is in the City of Westminster, London. Pall Mall East continues into Trafalgar Square. The name is derived from a mallet-and-ball game that was played there during the 1600s. It is home to various gentlemen’s clubs built there in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was once the center of the fine arts in London, as well. Most of the southern side of the street is held by the Crown with St. James’s Palace, Marlborough House, and the Prince Regent’s Carlton House all located on the street. It was also home to the War Office.

Lighting the streets at night has a history running back to at least 1417 when Sir Henry Barton, Mayor of London, ordered lanterns to be hung during the winter nights between Hallowtide and Candlemasse. Paris first lit the streets in 1524 and in some places, residents were ordered to keep candles lit in their windows to help illuminate winter darkened roads. London made a law in 1716 making it mandatory that all houses facing any street, lane, or passage, hang out a lantern every dark night from six to eleven, or be fined one shilling.

Coal mining proved to have a side effect. Gases were noted, some called “choke damp” and another type labeled “fire damp.” It was noted by experimenters that this gas could support combustion. Dr. Stephen Hales was the first to make a liquid from the distillation of coal with a byproduct of coal-gas and published his findings in 1726. By 1735, by accident, Dr. John Clayton found the coal-gas to be flammable as it came into contact with his candle.

William Murdoch used this flammable gas for lighting purposes in the early 1790s. He first lit his own house using this new gas in 1792. By 1798, he was lighting the main building of the Soho Foundry where he worked. In 1802, he and his partners gave a demonstration of this technique out of doors. Samuel Clegg saw the business opportunity and set up his own business, the Gas Lighting and Coke Company. This day showed the first public demonstration of the technique in London. Soon, Parliament granted Gas Lighting a charter and they became the first gas company in the world. The artificial lighting spread first across England and then moved to the rest of the world.

“We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.” – Ben Sweetland

“Light gives of itself freely, filling all available space.  It does not seek anything in return; it asks not whether you are friend or foe.  It gives of itself and is not thereby diminished.” – Michael Strassfeld

“You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” – Arlo Guthrie

“Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light.” – Norman B. Rice

Also on this day:
Beautiful Snow – In 1887, the largest snowflake on record was found.
Neologisms – In 1754 a new word (serendipity) was coined by Horace Walpole.

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