Quest for a Better Light
by Carolyn Good
Ever since the first paleo-human brought a flaming stick inside the cave, artificial light has remained an essential part of developing civilization. Perhaps that first torch engendered the same fear and mistrust that has accompanied each new lighting innovation through the centuries. Yet in spite of all initial misgivings, mankind has not ceased to apply ingenious solutions to improve the efficiency, practicality, and economy of bringing light into our dwellings, pushing back the darkness and extending our days.
Seeking something safer and longer lasting than a torch made way for the first primitive oil lamps, which were simply a rock crevice or hollowed object stuffed with moss that had been soaked in animal fat. This in turn led to a fiber wick immersed in the liquid fat, and by 3000 BC a wick wrapped in tallow, which we call a candle, shows up in Egypt. Candle technology was sufficient to last well into the eighteenth century, when whale oil was introduced, providing a superior light with a whiter and brighter flame. We can well imagine a cautious, cultural reluctance to shift away from the familiarity, predictability and security of candlelight. Until, that is, whale oil lanterns in turn became familiar, and their steady brilliant light became the new standard, a certain improvement over sputtering and flickering candles. The whale oil industry flourished for over a century.
Whale oil as a lamp fuel had its problems, too, burning with a strong odor and turning rancid and foul-smelling in storage. When whale fishing began to play itself out and whale oil became increasingly scarce and wildly expensive, the quest was on for a better, cheaper source of oil. By the 1850s the petroleum industry was well underway, sparking a global technological and economic revolution. With the liquid fuel technologies already in place, kerosene took over the market, providing a cheap, steady, longer-lasting flame, and these portable lamps quickly became the most sought-after indoor lighting method.
At the same time, the process to manufacture gas from coal was being refined, and the next radical change in indoor lighting seemed unavoidable. While many people refused to allow the new-fangled gas light into their homes, the use of gas in cast-iron street lamps had been steadily increasing since the early 1800s and this public use enabled folks to gradually get used to the idea. Gaslight cost up to 75% less than oil, and by 1860 there were over 300 gas plants in cities and towns across the United States.
Woodstock was no exception. Woodstock’s Gas Light Company incorporated in 1855, laying about two miles of main lines throughout the village. The plant itself was located “off Church Street, near the River” according to the incorporation documents – which was, more specifically, behind the Unitarian-Universalist Church. This gas plant distilled and pressurized gas for delivery through underground pipes to a meter inside the home of subscribers. From this meter, sometimes prominently displayed in the parlor, the gas would be piped to various fixtures in the house. To light a lamp, one would gradually open the regulator until there was just enough gas to ignite, and then adjust the flame to a desired level.
This new, steady, clear light had broad social significance, turning night into day for many. It allowed factories to add night shifts, made streets safer for socializing, and accelerated the spread of reading and writing. And, as with previous lighting innovations, distrust and suspicion were also widespread. Fears included health concerns, such as the prevalence of tuberculosis; environmental and aesthetic issues; dangers of leaks, suffocation, fire, and explosions; and its use required constant diligence. A hearing in the city of Boston, in 1866, on the expansion of gasworks there had this to say: “The Gas House corrupts the air; it emits a smell that has a tendency to suffocate invalids; the Gas deposits a powerful oil which penetrates the soil; and the overflow enters the drains to the annoyance of the neighborhood.”
Even the meter box itself was a great source of mistrust. There was a popular notion that this new gadget in the home was in collusion with the gas company, to take advantage of the homeowners now dependent on it. Gas companies did their best to allay all these fears, citing superiority of gas for providing illumination, extolling its safety, simplicity and economy of time and labor. One pervasive fear, however, proved to be undeniable -- the danger of fire and explosion was real.
The Vermont Standard of November 14, 1872 reports: “On Friday last in the afternoon the gas house here was destroyed by fire. Anthoine Picois (Pecor?), the gasmaker, having filled the receiver had put additional weights upon it, causing it to tip up. He had just started for the door to get a crowbar, when hearing a noise he looked round and saw the roof of the gas house floating off. The gas had escaped, communicated itself to a lamp burning nearby, and the result was of course an instant explosion. Help was soon brought, but everything was almost immediately in flames and nothing was saved. The loss of the gas is a serious inconvenience to many but a new house will be put up as soon as possible and we understand the new one is expected to be built with reference to preventing fires in future.” Bob Benz, in his Gas Report published for the Billings Farm and Museum in 1996, smartly observes, “It is not known if Anthoine was injured or sought another line of work following the explosion. The sight of the roof floating off could have been a life-changing experience for Mr. Picois.”
Residents of the village adjusted to this power-outage, much as we do today on occasion, by getting out our old kerosene lamps and candles. But it took three months before the gas plant was up and running again, creating particular hardships for local businesses, especially Mr. Woodward’s mill and factory, which lost two or more hours each day of production time. When the new gas plant opened again in February of 1873, the new paraffin oil gas was praised as providing “…a beautifully white and strong white light…far exceeding anything we have enjoyed.” (VT Standard, Feb. 6, 1873.)
The last decades of the nineteenth century brought yet another innovation in artificial lighting as electricity, generated by water or by coal-fired steam, burst onto the American scene. It took the public several years to begin to trust this invisible power surging through insulated cables and Thomas Edison himself embarked on a dazzling advertising campaign to assuage the fears, promoting his new electric lights as safe, clean, healthy and efficient. By 1900, the Woodstock Electric Company had already begun providing some services in the village, but it was a slow transition from gas to electric as the use of gas was now familiar, with fixtures and systems already in place.
The Woodstock Gas Company finally closed its operations by 1908 due to lack of profit and lack of maintenance, and with gas lighting no longer available there was some debate among townsfolk about re-adjusting to the new electrical system. It wasn’t until around 1920 that electricity became the standard for home lighting, and
not until the 1960s were the last remnants of the foundation of Woodstock’s gas plant finally removed from behind the UU Church.
Now, every aspect of our lives is dependent on electricity. Those first mysterious, glowing light bulbs ushered in an explosion of new gadgets and inventions that we can’t imagine living without. The global demand for electricity is unbounded and rising, and we continue to seek new, responsible ways to bring light into our darkness. We also continue to mistrust and seek ways to overcome the dangers and side-effects of these modern sources of power. Whether fossil fuel, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind or biomass, each new technology has its strengths and weaknesses, as has been true since the beginning of artificial light. There may be many factors that motivate radical change in the methods we use to push back the darkness. Depletion, high prices and new technologies all play a part. But it seems each innovation will necessarily bring its own cultural and environmental impact to our always-changing world.
Quest for a Better Light