Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Monday, July 25, 2005

From Chaos to Energy: Natural Gas in NYC

One of the great things about studying our town's history is that just about everything is on such a grand scale as to be interesting. Let us look at a utility which most New Yorkers take for granted, except when heating bills start to increase.

Natural gas has been known to exist since ancient times, although it has only been within the last fifty years that the infrastructure has existed to bring this fuel to Gotham. For most of our history, gas has had to be manufactured, and it was a discovery by the Belgian alchemist Jean Baptiste van Helmont in 1609 that started humanity in this direction, through an experiment similar to that performed today in countless high school science laboratories. Hoping to turn common materials into gold (the dream of all alchemists) van Helmont noticed that, when certain substances were heated to high temperatures, they gave off what appeared to be two separate gaseous byproducts. The first, of course, was smoke, but the other, invisible matter was something the Greeks called "chaos," or 'wild spirit.' Van Helmont called the substance "gas."

Scientists may have been fascinated by gas, but they lacked the means to effectively and safely harness it. It was not until 1792 that William Murdock, inventor of the locomotive, discovered that he could light his house with the gas which he derived from heating coal, and shortly thereafter, the cities of London, Paris and Baltimore began experimenting with street lighting powered by coal gas delivered through underground pipes. Not everyone was thrilled with the idea at first. Napoleon called it "foolishness," while Sir Walter Scott dubbed its English proponent a "madman." Besides the fear of this new technology, gas developers had also to contend with opposition from chandlers (candle manufacturers), as well as whalers, who supplied much of the oil used to fuel lamps of that day. Nevertheless, the fledgling industry grew, and gas lighting came to New York in 1828.

Gas in New York was produced from a variety of substances, including coal, oil and rosin, in plants known as "gas houses." Since the heating of coal created large quantities of foul-smelling sulfur, the areas in which these early structures were located were not exactly prime real estate, with two of the more infamous zones being the legendary "Gashouse District" on the East Side between approximately 14th and 27th Streets, and the Gowanus Canal area in South Brooklyn (which we tour on our Carroll Gardens walks). Initially used primarily for lighting, gas was prohibitively expensive, although prices did come down considerably after more companies began to compete. Since nobody had yet developed a metering system for the new utility, suppliers charged each customer by the number of lamps they had. Every evening at about 10:30 an inspector would come around, rap his cane on the sidewalk for attention, and cry "Lights out!," at which time homeowners were expected to extinguish their gas lamps and switch to lanterns or candles. Should his orders not be heeded, the inspector had the authority to turn off the lights himself.

In 1884 many of the independent firms supplying Manhattan joined to form the Consolidated Gas Company of New York, the predecessor to you-know-whom. At about this time the industry encountered its most serious competition so far - electric lighting. The newly-opened Brooklyn Bridge was illuminated by this new technology, and Thomas Edison himself opened the city's first generating plant on Pearl Street in 1882. Bit by bit the City made the transition to incandescent street lighting, until in 1903 the final strip of gas lamps on a portion of Fifth Avenue were extinguished for good. Luckily for the suppliers, New Yorkers were finding new uses for their products, and gas cooking became popular, with the first stoves being brought from England around the turn of the century.

As the technology for producing gas from coal improved, plants became more efficient, and were able to harness a number of useful byproducts from the process. Coal tar has been used in the manufacturing of everything from perfumes to waterproofing to the artificial sweetener saccharin, while a substance known as lampblack has been employed to make ink, paint and synthetic rubber. Useful as these derivatives were, the coal plants became obsolete in the 1950's when New York was able to receive natural gas via pipeline.

Today all of New York City's gas comes from natural sources. Clean and odorless, it is still the preferred cooking fuel, and has made serious inroads for home heating. (The familiar odor that we associate with the substance is actually a second, inert gas which is added by utility companies in order to make it easy to detect potentially dangerous leaks). Probably the biggest dangers to our town's gas supply in the foreseeable future are depleting reserves and high prices. Who knows? If natural gas becomes too expensive or scarce the era of the gas house may return.


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