One of my favorite old technology books is MECHANICS OF THE HOUSEHOLD, published in 1918. It presents just about every technology that was used for heating, cooling, lighting, and plumbing homes in the 1910s. Gas lighting was still going strong if electricity was unavailable. The number of variants of gas lighting is what’s interesting to me. If you were inside a city regular coal gas could be piped to your house. If you lived in the country you had to make your own gas.
There were several methods to do this. The most common was to create acetylene using calcium carbide. Calcium carbide (carbide for short) is an industrially created compound (looks like small rocks) that was first developed in the early 1890s. The magic thing about calcium carbide is that it releases acetylene gas when it is mixed with water.
If you bump around in antique shops you may have seen old miner’s helmet lights or even very early bicycle headlights that were powered by acetylene.
Two carbide hand lamps and a miner’s helmet lamp.
These little brass wonders have a reservoir for water as well as a gas-tight container holding the calcium carbide. Water drips onto the carbide producing gas which is then sent to the burner.
When my boys were kids we played with an unusually well preserved carbide hand lamp, sometimes using it to light our way around neighborhood walks. Yes, we got strange looks from other walkers.
Before automobiles had sophisticated electrical systems cars used carbide-driven headlights. An acetylene generator mounted to the running board produced gas that was piped to the headlights.
You could expand that idea to a much larger system to provide city-style lighting for your country home. Here is a diagram of two styles of acetylene plants to provide house lighting.
Here is a drawing of an actual plant, again from MECHANICS OF THE HOUSEHOLD.
All you have to do is setup the gas plant in your basement, then pipe the gas to lights around the house.
The British were more cautious about acetylene plants. HARMSWORTH’S HOUSEHOLD ENCYCLOPEDIA advises that such plants should be placed in a building away from the house and that only an electric flashlight should be used to light the shed. Harmsworth’s also advises you to put out your cigar before refilling the hopper with carbide.
A British acetylene plant from Harmsworth’s.
As you can imagine, you had to feed these systems both carbide and water regularly. You also had to clean out the white lime mess that was left over from the carbide pretty often as well.
A while back my wife and I were touring the Oakland Plantation near Natchitoches, Louisiana.
I took note of an old gaslight in the front yard and hoped for some other evidence of a gas system. Many of the fixtures were original gas lights which have been electrified over the years.
There were several sheds in the backyard. Low and behold, one of them held the original acetylene gas plant.
Even the weights from the gas holder were still sitting nearby.
Acetylene gas systems seemed to be the most widely used gas system for country homes, but MECHANICS OF THE HOUSEHOLD presents some interesting alternatives. Do you know how a Coleman lamp works? Pressurized liquid gasoline is sprayed into the air and lit. Before the gas is sprayed, it travels through a tube very close to the flame, vaporizing the liquid. So what comes out of the sprayer is really gas vapor (once you get the lamp properly warmed up), not unlike the coal gas used in the cities, acetylene gas, or the natural gas that many of us use today for heat. OK, we can do the same thing for a house. Here we have a container of gasoline in the attic that gravity-feeds tubing wandering throughout the home.
Sure this is scary. If you have ever tried to pre-heat and start a 1918 Coleman lantern, such a system is more scary. Let’s just say that you can have a lot of liquid gas hit the carpet if you aren’t good at getting you lamp warmed up. Plus you had all that fun of carrying a five gallon can of gas to the attic whenever things sputtered out.
Here is another variant. Instead of having a gas tank in your attic, you can put it elsewhere and pressurize the system with a hand pump. Just send Junior down there to pump away if the lights start getting dim. Jiffy!
I’ve saved the most curious system for last. Again, it uses liquid gasoline. It vaporizes it using a carburetor. The carburetor is really a large tank with many baffles so that the gasoline presents a significant amount of surface area to the air that passes through the vessel. This device is buried in the yard (thankfully). In the house a mechanical blower pushes air through the carburetor where it absorbs gasoline vapor. This slightly pressurized air-gas mix is then piped through the house to the lights, stove, and water heater. Since we have no electricity the blower is run by a large, heavy weight that must occasionally be wound back up to the ceiling for the system to continue to work.
I would think such a system could have some interesting problems with gas vapor turning back to liquid in the cold pipes.
Staying out of the dark used to be hard and dangerous work.