Developed in England in the 1790s, gas light technology spread quickly. In 1816 gas streetlights went into service in Baltimore, and by the time of Edison’s 1879 lamp invention, gas lighting was a mature, well-established industry. The gas infrastructure was in place, franchises had been granted, and manufacturing facilities for both gas and equipment were in profitable operation. Perhaps as important, people had grown accustomed to the idea of lighting with gas.
Edison consciously modeled his plans for an electric lighting system on the gas light technology. Instead of gas-making plants, he designed generators. Where pipes ran under the streets distributing gas to end users, he planned to place electrical “mains” (conductors) to carry current. Since people were able to have gas lamps in many rooms and control them individually, Edison intended his lamps to be capable of independent operation.
Even before Edison demonstrated a working lamp, gas stocks began to fall in price. In late 1879 he and his men began making detailed cost studies of gas light in order to determine price goals that the electric light would have to meet. After the lamp invention, promotions for the Edison system duly reported deaths and injuries due to gas.
Despite nightmares like the one depicted above, gas manufacturers responded to the challenge with two major advances. The first was better quality gas. The second was an incandescent mantle invented by Carl Auer von Welsbach of Austria (who later invented the first commercial metal filament light bulb). Both innovations resulted in more brighter, more efficient light.
Gas proved a tough competitor since infrastructure already existed, whereas electric light could not be used until generating plants were built and wires were strung. Also, gas could be used for heating and cooking as well as light. In 1910, GE’s William Coolidge invented a tungsten-filament lamp capable of giving 10 lumens per watt. That invention, combined with the growing level of electrification in the country effectively eliminated competition from gas lighting.
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