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Our Documentary Heritage

By Willis Shirk
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXV, Number 2 - Spring 2009

A 1931 report of the Penn Central Light and Power Company, of Altoona, Blair County, is contained in Record Group 14, Records of the Department of Internal Affairs, in record series 14.10, Annual Reports of Manufactured Gas Companies, 1931-1936, 1939-1955, at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg.

According to these annual reports, fortyfour manufactured gas companies were operating in Pennsylvania by 1931. In 1814, noted artist Rubens Peale (1784-1865), with the assistance of chemist Benjamin Kugler, began using manufactured coal gas to illuminate his Philadelphia museum.

In 1816, Peale's brother, Rembrandt (1778-1860), installed gas lighting at his museum in Baltimore, Maryland, opened two years earlier as "an elegant Rendezvous for taste, curiosity and leisure." He purchased Kugler's patent rights and organized, with a group of investors, the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, the first commercial gas lighting company in the United States.

By 1850, about fifty cities in the United States were supplied with manufactured coal gas, known as town gas. Portable equipment provided gas lighting in luxury railroad cars.

Town gas was manufactured by heating coal, or other organic substances, that generated a gaseous mixture of about 50 percent hydrogen, 20-30 percent methane, and a lesser amount of carbon monoxide, among other components, depending upon the process employed. The resulting gas was stored at near normal atmospheric pressure in a gasometer (a cylinder or tank) for distribution to customers.

Despite its relatively modest energy content of just 19 megajoules per cubic meter, by the mid-nineteenth century Philadelphians were consuming approximately 300 million cubic feet of town gas annually. (A joule is a unit of energy required to perform a specific action.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, the higher energy content of 37 megajoules per cubic meter provided by natural gas, combined with pipeline transport from natural gas fields in eastern Texas, caused most gas utility companies to convert their operations to natural gas.

First drilled on a commercial scale in Fredonia, New York, in 1825, and extracted in even larger quantities at Titusville, Venango County, in 1859 (see "Barbara T. Zolli on 'A Drop of Oil,'" an interview conducted by Kenneth C. Wolensky), natural gas is a hydrocarbon fuel associated with petroleum that consists primarily of methane, but may also contain other components such as butane, ethane, and propane. Natural gas has proven to be a cleaner and more economical alternative to the traditional town gas that was the signature fuel of the Gaslight Era in America.