Gaslights

Today’s the anniversary of the first public gas lights in London in 1807, which illuminated Pall Mall. Or possibly not, because according to this article in The Times, the two-hundred anniversary was celebrated on June 18, 2007, when a lamplighter, using the traditional pole, lit a lamp on Pall Mall. In 1985 a timing device was introduced to light the lamps, maintained by a team of six lamp light attendants. London has 1600 remaining gas lights, mainly in the areas of Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and the Mall. Here’s one at Lincolns Inn.

For some other really gorgeous pictures of gas lights, visit urban75.org.

The possibilities of using coal gas to illuminate buildings and streets was not a new idea. In 1735 Dr. John Clayton of Wigan entertained his friends, and then the members of the Royal Society, by capturing “the spirit of coal” in animal bladders and then setting them alight (boys will be boys). In 1792, William Murdoch (or Murdock) refined the method of capturing and controlling gas and illuminated his house in Cornwall. The technology was first seized upon by industrialists who saw it as a way of expanding the workday and their profits, and then applied it to lighting the streets of cities.

London, like all large cities of its time, was a riotous and dangerous place, riddled with gangs and criminals. The only protection, other than footmen for the wealthy, were the night watchmen, ineffective and figures of fun. So the idea of illuminating the mean streets caught on worldwide. France experimented with gaslights in 1801. In 1812, the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company used wooden pipes to light Westminster bridge in time for New Year’s Eve, 1813. You can read the transcript of the 1819 Parliamentary debate on the pros and cons of gas lighting online here.

Baltimore became the first city to be lit by gas in 1816. Germany’s inaugural gasworks opened in 1825, by which time in London, over 40,000 gaslights illuminated 215 miles of streets.

Here’s a Rowlandson cartoon from 1809 celebrating the Pall Mall lighting. From left to right, the speech captions are as follows. I particularly like the new challenge that gas lighting offers to the sex trade:

Well-informed gentleman: “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.”

Irishman: “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.”

Rustic bumpkin: “Wauns, what a main pretty light it be: we have nothing like it in our Country.”

Quaker: “Aye, Friend, but it is all Vanity: what is this to the Inward Light?”

Shady Female: “If this light is not put a stop to — we must give up our business. We may as well shut up shop.”

Shady Male: “True, my dear: not a dark corner to be got for love or money.”

And now the bad news. I discovered quite a lot of this information from an article in the Guardian, Life Before Artificial Light, which went on to discuss a book–yes, it’s another one for the TBR pile, I’m afraid, by Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close. What artificial light did, in addition to making the streets, and people’s homes, safer at night, was to change sleep patterns that are probably prehistoric in origin.

Ekirch discovered that pre-industrial revolution sleep patterns, from the time of Homer onward, seem to have been segmented, with a “first sleep” until about midnight, when people would awaken and maybe get up for a time, followed by a “second sleep.” (People were probably going to bed, at the latest, at around 10 pm.) The waking up period, with what light was available, lamps, rush lights, candles, might include card games, conversation, reflection, and the obvious. A sixteenth century doctor reported that sex was better after than before the first sleep, which makes sense.

Furthermore, a study at NIH which deprived young males of artificial light reported that they naturally fell into this sleep pattern (no, I don’t know if they had sex, or with whom, in the middle of the night).

Interesting stuff. Have you ever lived entirely with natural light and did you find your sleep patterns changed? Do you think you’d enjoy a first and second sleep pattern? What would you choose to do in the middle of the night?

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