William Murdoch

Over two hundred years ago William Murdoch, the father of the modern gas industry, pioneered the use of the first practical system of gas light anywhere. William Murdoch was born on 21 August 1754 at Bello Mill near Lugar, Ayrshire. He showed signs of his mechanical genius at an early age when he and his father invented a tricycle which anticipated the first bicycle by 40 years. He was employed by the great industrialists Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Boulton and Watt had built up a considerable reputation for their Soho engineering works in Birmingham where they manufactured steam engines which were used to drain Cornish tin and copper mines. Murdoch became their leading engineer in Cornwall and devised many improvements in mining technology, but his two most significant inventions were gas lighting and the first steam engine carriage in Britain.

In 1792 he began a series of experiments which resulted in the first practical system of gas lighting anywhere in the world. The coal - gas which Murdoch lit his house and offices in Redruth in 1794 was generated in an iron retort at the bottom of his garden, and then piped into his house where he lit the rooms with a variety of burners. 

His employers did little to encourage this invention until reports that a Frenchman had developed a system of gas lighting using wood or oil prompted Boulton and Watt to exploit Murdoch's invention before the opportunity was lost. 

It was not though until a Manchester mill owner, George Lee, ordered Murdoch's gas lights for his factory in 1805 that the invention took off. On the 1st of January 1806 part of Lee's factory and home were lit by gas. 

Murdoch had demonstrated that a factory could be better lit for more than a quarter of the cost of oil or candle light. In recognition of this remarkable achievement the Royal Society awarded him the Rumford gold medal in 1808. 

Boulton and Watt's sons inherited the company, but they too showed little desire to actively market the new gas lighting, although they did provide lighting for several individual factories. 

When William Murdoch retired, aged 80, his imagination was still hard at work. It was however left to others to develop Murdoch's visionary discovery into what is now the fifth largest industry in Britain. 

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