When Julius Caesar invaded England, in 55 BCE, he found a land where the inhabited natural clearings were surrounded by vast forests. Eleven hundred years later, when William the Bastard landed, he found more farmland, but pretty much the same vast forests of hardwoods and tall pines. But had Bonaparte ever succeeded in his own invasion, he would have found a country largely stripped of its old growth forests and forced to import the tall pines for the Royal Navy’s masts from Scandinavia (after that unfortunate misunderstanding with the American colonies).
The problem, you see, was the Industrial Revolution. It had begun in the eighteenth century. And Britain found herself blessed with substantial, easy-to-mine deposits of iron ore. Just the thing for a revolution built on wrought and cast iron. But first it had to be smelted.
No problem there, right? After all, we’ve got lots of trees to melt the iron out of the ore.
Not so fast. It turns out that just burning wood doesn’t easily produce a fire hot enough to smelt iron. Far worse, burning wood releases a wealth of chemicals to pollute the iron and turn it into useless garbage.
What to do?
Turns out if you pile up trees into giant tepees, cover them with dirt, and start a slow fire in the center, you can cook the wood, distilling off all the volatile fluids and gases and leaving behind nearly pure carbon: charcoal.
Charcoal was the ideal medium to melt iron with. Soon the hills of Britain were loud with the sounds of axes and saws, and the great forests started to shrink. It wasn’t long before things had reached something of a crisis.
Britain, of course, was also blessed with lots of coal as well as lots of iron ore, but, as a fuel, coal was an even worse contaminator of iron than raw wood.
The solution, it turned out, was right before their eyes. If you could heat wood to drive off all those contaminants, why not coal? Not as easy as it sounds, and it takes a lots hotter fire, but the result was another version of pretty pure carbon: coke.
So what was left of Britain’s forests (and their Industrial Revolution) were saved by coke. Pretty soon there were huge kilns cooking coal down into coke all over the place. Miraculous things, but you wouldn’t want to live anywhere nearby.
The coking process give off lots of water, but it also gives a foul smelling liquid and an even worse smelling vapor. Modern chemists say the liquid, called coal-tar, has over 200 compounds in it, and they’ve found a use for most of them. Even in the 19th century, chemists had learned to turn a tidy profit from their coal-tar.
The vapor that came out of the tops of the ovens, on the other hand, was different. It smelled like ammonia mixed with naphthalene and rotten eggs, which is hardly the way to please any neighbors who live downwind. And it was bloody useless.
Then they discovered you could burn the stuff. Just a way to get rid of it…until they noticed it not only burned, it burned brightly and didn’t give off the smuts of an oil lamp. Hmmm. The problem suddenly changed from how to get rid of the stuff to how to capture and deodorize it.
So the next-to-last of the great lighting revolutions began. By the early part of the nineteenth century all the big cities were tearing up their streets and laying pipes for the new coal-gas. And pretty soon giant gas works arose (in the poorer sections, of course, since they smelled like hell) to feed them. The changes eventually spread to the smaller cities and even to individual mansions and factories.
And with it came social revolutions we take for granted.
Things like centralized utilities. Things like night shifts at the factory. Things like well lighted streets with no fear of footpads. And things like bright shop windows and late night store hours.
Gas lighting brought these and dozens of other “modern” things we think of as fruits of the electric revolution. But it’s not true. The Law of Unintended Consequences gave birth to them long before Thomas Edison was born.