At the corner of North Holliday and East Baltimore streets, in Baltimore, stands a monument to the first gas streetlamp in the U.S. On the evening of June 11, 1816, Baltimore became the first American city to have gas lighting, and the Gas Light Co. of Baltimore soon was recognized as the first gas company in the Western Hemisphere.
The use of gas for lighting quickly spread to other cities around the country and was commonly used throughout the remainder of the 19th century. The first use of gas was manufactured from the process known as the gasification of coal, and the smoking chimneys and large round storage tanks of gas manufacturing plants became common sights in American cities as the century progressed.
If you lived inside a large city, regular coal gas could be piped to your building or home. But if you lived in the country or on a farm, you had to make your own gas.
In the early 20th century, a new type of gas, known as acetylene, became widely used for illumination, including street lighting, railways, mines, marine buoys, automobiles, bicycles, lanterns and some residential homes. Some small towns even used acetylene lamps as their major source of city lighting.
In acetylene lamps, water was mixed with calcium carbide at a controlled rate and when ignited, created a brilliant white light, much brighter than with the other fuels available at the time. Thomas Leopold Willson, an electrical engineer, is credited with discovering the first commercial process for the production of calcium carbide, a chemical compound used in the manufacture of acetylene gas. To many at the time, Willson was known as the man who turned “water into light.” In 1895, Willson sold his patent to the Union Carbide Co.
At the close of the 19th century, there were many inventors using Willson’s application that had filed patents for acetylene generators for home use. These were self-contained devices that generated and stored acetylene by either dropped pellets of calcium carbide (carbide for short) into water or dripped water onto the calcium carbide. The magic about calcium carbide is that it releases acetylene gas when it is mixed with water.
The gas was then captured in a “bell” that would rise and fall with the volume of gas. The gas was then slightly pressurized and piped throughout the building or home. For those that did not have a tank and pump in the basement (or outside), putting a gas tank in the attic would make it easier to pressurize the system, and gravity would help to feed the gas tubing that was weaved throughout the home.
By 1910, acetylene gas systems seemed to be the most widely used illumination system for rural, country homes. Although this was a big improvement over the old portable kerosene lamps that were common in rural America, it was not without the danger of explosion. Acetylene tanks often were prone to leaks, creating a nauseating combustible odor, similar to rotten garlic, throughout the dwelling.
By 1920, acetylene as a light source was being eclipsed by natural gas, electric light and even batteries in many parts of the U.S. In rural America, however, acetylene continued to be used until much of the country was electrified beginning in the late 1930s.
Located on the southeast corner of Osceola and St. Mary’s streets, just west of the Minooka Public Library, the C.E. Davis house still stands today. Noteworthy for its use of acetylene, the Davis home contained a gas tank in the attic that powered the lights in the house. Both images show views of the Davis house looking east from Osceola Street.