No Dark Corners

In the early 1800s London was suddenly ablaze, as gas lamps lit up streets all over the city. By the mid-1820s major cities and towns all over Britain were using gas lighting, and the technology spread rapidly around the industrialized world in the years that followed.

A May episode of Distillations, CHF’s award-winning podcast, focuses on the science and history of gas lighting. This week, we were delighted to find a cartoon in the collection from that same history:

"A Peep at the Gas Lights in Pall-Mall." Thomas Rowlandson, 1809. Fischer Collection, CHF Collections.

 “A Peep at the Gas Lights in Pall-Mall” features six caricatured figures, all wondering at London’s new glow (click here for a larger image). Their exclamations, written in a dialect, give insight into where each person comes from. The gentleman on the left explains the scientific process of gathering the gas: "The Coals being steam'd produces tar or paint for the outside of Houses -- the Smoke passing thro' water is deprived of substance and burns as you see.” One wonders if he might be an amateur scientist himself, a popular undertaking for the upper class at the time. Unfortunately, his explanation is lost on the Irishman just to his right, who misunderstands the process and fears for the water-bound creatures who he believes will be destroyed in the process: "Arragh honey, if this man bring fire thro water we shall soon have the Thames and the Liffey burnt down -- and all the pretty little herrings and whales burnt to cinders."

The country bumpkin on the right merely expresses his amazement at the beautiful light, the likes of which he has never seen, (“"Wauns, what a main pretty light it be: we have nothing like it in our Country"), while the person next to him – who by dress appears to be a religious dissenter – complains that this outside light bears no comparison to the bright shine of the “Inward Light.” The final pair of figures, perhaps not as respectable as the first gentleman and his lady, bemoan gas light’s effect on their livelihoods: "If this light is not put a stop to -- we must give up our business. We may as well shut up shop." "True, my dear: not a dark corner to be got for love or money."

Gas lighting was a revolution, despite the difficulties, dangers – and, gently mocked here, fears – associated with it. Its significance in urban history made it a perfect subject for “Our Chemical Landscape,” a four-part series Distillations is rolling out this summer. The shows explore chemistry in a chain of built and natural environments; our suburbs episode, which looks at the history of the electric car and the environmental challenges associated with gridlock, debuted last week. Subscribe to Distillations' RSS feed for the latest episode, or watch these pages for more related stories. Hopefully we’ll find more cartoons!

Gigi Naglak is Outreach Coordinator at CHF’s Eddleman Institute.

Our Chemical Landscape: The City [Distillations]
Our Chemical Landscape: The Suburb [Distillations]
Early Chemistry and Gases [CHF]

Posted In: History | Technology

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