William Murdoch, first man to use gaslight

William Murdoch, first man to use gaslight

William Murdoch lived in Redruth and while there invented domestic gas lighting. William Murdoch pioneered the first practical system of piped-gas lighting anywhere in the world. His Redruth house is now the ownership of the Society of Friends Trust.

William Murdoch was born in 1754 at Bello Mill Farm, near Cumnock in Ayrshire. In his mid twenties he walked from Ayrshire to Birmingham to find work at the famous Soho works of James Watt and Matthew Boulton.

Boulton and Watt were selling some of their engines for use in pumping water out of mines in Cornwall. They needed a resident engineer and in 1779 they sent Murdoch to Cornwall. He made his home in Cross Street, Redruth from 1782 to 1798.

The engines were used for pumping water out of the Cornish mines, and because of the way that manufacturers were paid, the efficiency of the engines was an important factor in both the amount of tin that could be extracted from a mine, and the amount of money that the pump owners could extract from the mine. Steam engines were operated, and maintained by the engine manufacturers, who were paid through a complex formula calculated on the basis of that engines performance. So Murdoch's skill in getting the most out of his engines and keeping them running effected Boulton and Watts profits.

In addition Murdoch made an important discovery. He was apparently sitting by his fire one evening, put some coal dust in the bowl of his pipe (its unclear why), and and put the pipe in the fire. Coal gas was formed and came out of the mouthpiece ignited in the fire shone brightly. He had discovered gas as a light.

Accounts exist that by 1794 Murdoch was making coal gas from burning coal in a retort with a three or four foot iron tube attached. He could then pipe and ignite the gas where he wanted light. Most witnesses to his demonstrations of gas lighting agree that his gas production and lighting was in his workshop rather than in the house itself and that there was no permanent gas lighting in his own house.

While in based in Cornwall, Murdoch had to deal with many problems with the steam engines and this led him into making improvements to the basic steam engine designs used by Boulton and Watt. From 1782 there is evidence that Murdoch was writing to Watt on a number of improvements. However very few of the letters from Murdoch to Watt between 1780 and 1797 exist in the Watt archive. It has been suggested that Watt's son, James Watt Junior, removed any evidence of Murdoch's connection with some of the inventions that his father patented.

In 1798 Murdoch returned to Birmingham to work in the Soho foundry and continued his experiments with gas. He lit the interior of the Soho main building.

He died in Birmingham in 1839.

William Murdoch research links

The Scot who lit the world

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