How Gas Boilers Came To Be

Published: June 10, 2010 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: History Lesson

gaslight

Gaslight. How romantic!

Or was it? A friend sent me a booklet that New Jersey's Public Service Gas Company(now Public Service Electric and Gas) published in 1917. This little gem appeared during a time when electricity was sweeping the nation and most owners of new homes had to make a choice between gas lighting and electric lighting. I found the way that the Gas Company went about their business back then fascinating. This is the sort of stuff that came out of a company that had to have seen the handwriting on the wall, but didn't have much choice that year because all they had to sell was gas. And when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Listen:

"There is not a room in your home that would not be more useful and therefore more valuable by having ample gas connections for lighting and heating.

"Since gas piping is probably the cheapest material that goes into a house, it is certainly worth making provisions for its installation in every room and fireplace when you consider the many comforts gas appliances bring to a home.

"Illumination by gas has been so greatly improved recently that more gas light is being used today than ever before because incandescent gaslight has peculiar eye-resting properties, which make it an ideal light for reading and working.

"Today, more meals are cooked, more water heated, more rooms heated, more refuse destroyed, and more clothes laundered by gas than ever before.

"Successful builders regard the piping of every room in the house for gas for lighting and heating as the highest type of insurance, for, by equipping all rooms with gas lighting and heating outlets, their dwellings can, in this respect at least, compete with buildings that may be erected later.

"These builders know from experience that they have been amply repaid for installing gas piping outlets in all rooms and fireplaces through enjoying the patronage of tenants and purchasers who know the value of gas service and insist upon having it.

"Since the satisfactory operation of gas appliances is dependent upon having gas outlets conveniently placed and of proper size, it is desirable that architects, plumbers and builders should consult with the Gas Company on this important matter.

"You are free to consult with us at any time without expense or obligation on your part about any matters in connection with gas service."

So there we are. It's 1917 and gaslighting is on the wane. It may have been because the gaslights were eating the oxygen in the houses and turning every room into a dormitory. It may have been that you had to keep the windows open during the winter to keep from suffocating, but never mind that. Consider the lovely glow!

"Why do you need modern gas light in your home? Incandescent gas light has peculiar properties of its own that make it an ideal light for homes, as it enables those living therein to work, read, sew, or study without eyestrain.

"Nothing needs more careful planning in a home than its illumination, if the eyesight of those living therein is to be conserved it the fullest extent. It is also a well-known fact that incandescent gaslight is restful and pleasing to the eyes. Therefore, provision should be made for its general use, particularly for reading purposes.

"Aside from its value as an illuminant, gas lighting aids the ventilation of a home materially. Some people have the erroneous idea that gas lighting vitiates the air, but all impartial investigations by competent authorities have shown that this opinion in groundless and, on the contrary, the burning of gas in small quantities such as is required for gas lighting, is always accompanied by an improvement in the quality of the air."

So there! Put a dozen or so open gas flames in your home and watch, as the air quality gets better, not worse. And buy some of that Prince Albert tobacco and some rolling papers while you're at it because smoking soothes your throat. Hey, five out five competent medical authorities agree!

As for heating, they were selling Solar Grand Fireplace Heaters (gas logs to you). Listen up. This is marvelously romantic stuff!

"The glow of the hearth and the red-coal effect give a charm to the Solar Grand Fireplace Heater, which recalls the many pleasant times spent in the days gone by, when all the family gathered around the open hearth evenings.

"And those of us who now live in heated homes know that, even though the method of heating may be otherwise ideal, a hot water or steam radiator or register at best is cheerless in looks, and not inviting, and there are day in the early Fall and late Spring when in mid-day the heat, instead of being welcome, becomes a nuisance, but in homes having a Solar Grand, the experience is that the Solar Grand furnishes all the heat necessary or desirable at these periods, thereby lessening the coal bill and the furnace-tending period."

Whew, what a sentence! Doesn't it make you wonder (it sure made me wonder) why they didn’t just sell folks a gas-fired boiler or a gas-fired furnace. I think they were walking on eggs with boilers and furnaces because coal was king in 1917. They were seeing their business slipping through their hands like a greased rope because of these newfangled electric wires that so many Americans seemed to want. They did begin to put their toes in the water as far as boilers went, though. Listen:

"It may be that we can heat your home with gas. During the past year, gas auxiliary house heating, by means of systems like the one in the illustration have been tried out and those who have installed these gas heating systems have expressed their unqualified approval of the results. We would be glad to furnish further particulars to the many that are interested in shortening the coal furnace-tending season. At present, systems are available for use in conjunction with steam and hot water boilers."

The illustration was of a relatively small gas-fired boiler sitting next to a humongous coal-fired steam boiler. They shared piping and you have to use one or the other because the waterlines were quite offset. That was the toehold. The rest is history. The public went for the concept they mentioned in passing (central heating), not for the one that was the main focus of the booklet (gaslighting). Life is so uncertain.

You know what I get out of reading all this old stuff? Perspective. At some point, Public Service Gas Company realized they were fighting a losing battle with gas lighting and got on board with electricity. They changed the name of the company and that was that. You cut your loses and walk away from a loser.

As I sit and read this wonderful old brochure, though, I can't help but think about those "competent authorities" that so believed in the "eye-resting benefits" of gas lighting. I wonder if those dudes changed their minds as electric lighting kicked their butts back into the Nineteenth Century. And you know what? It seems to me that no matter what the current technology or product offering is, there always will always be "competent authorities" who swear that this stuff is the best that will ever be. As a writer, I've been guilty of that myself. I like to think of myself a recovering competent authority nowadays.

Public Service was the Gas Company in 1917, and their main business was gaslight. They, and others like them, put the whale-oil folks out of business. They used gas made from coal to do this. Coal was King.

It was only the threat from Tom Edison that sent the Gas Company into the business of gas boilers and furnaces. In 1917, they were just putting their toe in the water. If it weren't for the trouble the United Mine Workers made for King Coal, Public Service might just have just kept on pushing those Solar Grand Fireplace Heaters. Who knows?

It's all about perspective. When you look at your own business, what do you see? Are the lights getting dimmer?