The Gas Museum, also known as the National Gas Museum, is situated in the former gatehouse of a gasworks in Leicester, and deals with the history of domestic and industrial gas supply. It is claimed to be "the biggest collection of gas and gas related artefacts in the world". In 17th and 18th century Britain, several people demonstrated that coal, when heated, gave off a gas which burned with a bright flame but it was the Scottish engineer William Murdoch who first put this to practical use, lighting his house in Cornwall with it in 1792. Murdoch’s employers, the Birmingham steam engine manufacturers Boulton and Watt, started to build small gas works for large users like factories. The first of these was installed in a cotton mill in Manchester in 1806. A rival manufacturer was Samuel Clegg, who had been William Murdoch’s assistant. Between 1806 and 1814, these companies and others built gas works to light over 30 industrial premises in Britain. In 1804, a German entrepreneur, Frederick Winsor, began to give public demonstrations of gas lighting in London, in a bid to attract supporters for a rival strategy of making gas in centralised gas works and distributing it through pipes in the streets.
In 1807, he demonstrated the use of gas to light streets, in London’s Pall Mall and in 1812 he obtained a Royal Charter to build the world’s first public gas works, which opened in Westminster in 1813. Gas lighting proved so popular that, within 15 years, almost every large town in Britain, as well as major cities in Europe, North America and beyond, had a gas works. The Company which Winsor founded, the Gas Light and Coke Company, continued to supply most of London’s gas until the industry was nationalised in 1949. The basic process for making gas from coal used in the early 19th century remained essentially unchanged right through until the last coal gas works closed in the 1970s. Coal in a closed tube called a retort was heated in a furnace. The gasses given off – mainly hydrogen and carbon monoxide – passed through a water trap (“hydraulic main”) and were then cooled in a condenser, where tar and some other liquids were removed. The gas then passed through a purifier to remove sulphur compounds and other impurities before being used or stored in a gas holder. Later in the 19th century, steam driven exhausters were introduced to pump the gas through the gas works and into the mains system.
Originally, gas was only used for lighting for a few hours at the start and end of each day so it was soon realised that it would be more efficient to make gas over a longer period and store it. The first gas holders just consisted of a “bell” floating in a tank of water. Calibration marks on the floating bell showed how much gas was being made or used, so these devices became – and are sometimes still – wrongly called “gasometers”. Later in the 19th century, gas holders became larger and more sophisticated, with telescopic sections. In the 20th century, various waterless designs, for example using a piston sealed with tar, were introduced from Europe. Many gas holders remain in use today in Britain, being filled at night and emptied during the day in the winter. Early gas pipes were generally made of cast iron with socket and spigot joints which were packed with hemp and sealed with molten lead. Today, gas pipes are made from polyethylene or, for higher pressures, welded steel.
The use of gas for purposes other than lighting was slow to gain public acceptance. This was not helped by the fact that many gas companies prohibited the use of gas during the day. London’s Reform Club was one of the first places to install gas cookers, in 1841. Several gas cookers were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851, after which they became more popular but their use was mainly restricted to more wealthy households, until some gas companies began to offer appliances such as a cooker to rent, paid for with the gas via pre-payment (slot) meters. The popularity of gas cookers received a major boost when the oven thermostat was invented in 1923. By the 1920s, gas was facing increasing competition from electricity for many domestic purposes. Manufacturers produced a variety of gas powered domestic appliances to encourage consumers to stay with gas. Gas refrigerators and irons were common but there were also gas powered fans and even thermo generators, allowing people to run their radios on gas.
When you visit the world’s largest and most significant gas history collection, you’ll discover the story of gas. See vintage working gas lights, learn how gas was made from coal and discover weird and wonderful gas gadgets like the gas radio and the gas hair-dryer. Smell the unique scent of coal gas. Learn about how gas became one of the world’s most important energy systems; providing lighting, heating and cooking food in millions of homes. Access for the disabled to the ground floor. Free car parking. Guided tours can be arranged. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : 195 Aylestone Road, Leicester, LE2 7QJ
Transport: Leicester (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 37, 84, 85 and 87 stop close by.
Opening Times : Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 10:30 to 17:30.
Tickets : Free; Donations Welcome.
Tel: 07557 612340