The main way to illuminate homes in the second half of the 1880s was through the use of oil lamps; or if the home was in the vicinity of a gas manufacturing plant, then gas became the fuel of choice for lighting the house. Much like we use natural gas today in our homes for heating, cooking and making hot water, at one time it was used to illuminate our homes. Open flames of gas were common in homes in urban areas, where gas manufacturing plants were usually located.
Here is how it worked. Coal was burned slowly at a gas manufacturing plant in what is known as a coking process (charred slowly in an oxygen starved environment). This drove off methane, the primary constituent of natural gas. Such low grade methane [about 500 Btu per cubic foot] was stored in large, cylindrical, steel containers that still may dot some urban area landscapes. This gas under pressure was then distributed to nearby homes and businesses for their use. If you lived in a suburban or rural area, you used oil lamps, maybe even candles, when the sun went down.
Large homes owned by people of means could rely on another method for gas illumination, a private system where a carbureted vapor fuel was made on-site and this vapor drawn into the home and used for illumination. One such system was called the Springfield Gas Machine, often used in large Victorian style homes of the period, including the Edison home, Glenmont, built in 1882. In the photo below, one sees the lovely Glenmont, a Queen Anne Victorian style mansion, with 29 ½ rooms.
Edison’s Glenmont home
About 100 feet away from this home an underground vault was located that contained a gasoline vaporizing system that connected with an air pump in the basement via underground piping. A large stone weight was cranked to a certain height in the basement of the home and this weight via mechanical gearing turned the centrifugal air pump, drawing gasoline vapors into the home to be used for illumination as needed. The diagram below shows the layout of the system. In the basement of Glenmont, one still sees the air pump and weight system remaining, along with the piping that led to the underground vault.
Edison purchased Glenmont in 1886, and soon bypassed the gasoline vapor system sometime in 1887/88, electrifying his beautiful home. The gasoline vapor system was most likely installed by the original famed architect of the home, Henry Hudson Holly. Edison installed underground electric lines from his nearby West Orange Labs-about ½ mile away. The massive home at one time had 500 light bulbs in service. Several large ceiling chandeliers originally designed for gas illumination have been converted to electricity and are in-service today at the mansion for visitors to see.
Original gas light chandelier at Glenmont [the library], long ago converted to electricity. Each bulb would have been an open flame.
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