Episode 195: What fuel did Pittsburgh’s first street lamps consume?

Have you ever wondered what kind of fuel Pittsburgh’s first street lamps consumed? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor of Carnegie Mellon University has some answers.

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HOST: What fuel did Pittsburgh’s first street lamps consume? On this week’s Energy Bite, Joel Tarr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has some answers.

JOEL: The first street lighting in Pittsburgh came in 1816 when a few whale oil lamps were distributed in the downtown area. In 1837, however, the first gas lights were installed in the city. They did not burn natural gas, but rather gas made from coal. The coal gas manufactured and processed involves distilling the mineral in a retort to drive out the volatiles to produce gas. Bituminous coal from western Pennsylvania mines was the best base to use to make gas.

HOST: How did we get to electric street lamps?

JOEL: As the use of electricity for lighting developed due to the efforts of inventors like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, competition developed among the gas companies and electrical companies over the lighting market. The first electric street lights installed were arc lamps followed by incandescent lights. The gas industry tried to meet the competition from electric lights by developing the Welsbach Mantle that provided a much brighter light than the normal gas light (Think of today’s Coleman lanterns used for camping). Eventually gas and electric companies combined. Over the years, gas was used less and less for lighting and used more and more for purposes such as cooking and heating of hot water.

HOST: Do you think understanding the historical context of energy developments can provide insights for the energy future? Take our poll, see the results, and ask your energy questions at Energy Bite dot org.

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