Since humans have walked the earth, they’ve been using natural gas for one thing or another. Today of course, it’s piped into homes without much fanfare, but before the modern era, its appearance as a mysterious flame often took on supernatural significance. Even now, you can find these strange flames in nature where lightning has ignited gas escaping from the earth, but we’re guessing you won’t start building a temple if you see one.
The first real use of natural gas may have come around the same time. In about 500 B.C., the Chinese were the first to figure out a way to use the gas they found seeping from the ground. Directing it via a system of bamboo tubes, they lit the flame below huge pots to distill salt water into fresh water.
But after that, innovation in the natural gas industry dried up, and it wasn’t until 1785 that it returned.
Employing a technology to pull natural gas from their country’s abundant coal, the British piped it down city streets to light well-to-do homes and gas lamps that cut the London fog. It took another thirty years for commercial natural gas to arrive in the United States, and Baltimore, Maryland was the first city on the continent to light its streets with gas produced from coal.
Five years later, in 1821, William Hart noticed bubbles rising in a creek outside Fredonia, NY. Excavating the discovery by hand, Hart’s shovel team dug down 27 feet and built a well to extract and transport the gas. They sent it through a hollow wood pipeline and lit four shops and a grist mill, not much by today’s standards, but impressive nonetheless.
It’s Colonel Edwin Drake, though, who gets most of the credit with founding America’s natural gas industry. (Hart earned the title “The Father of Natural Gas.”) Drilling 69 feet into the Pennsylvania countryside, Drake tapped oil and natural gas and directed both to the town of Titusville, five and a half miles away. He proved what was possible, and innovation took off.
Natural gas wells proliferated, and the gas they supplied was used primarily to light buildings and streets. Gas lamps burned cleaner and brighter than their competitors and did so with less fuss and danger—the perfect solution to the urban lighting problem until electricity came along.
By that point, though, Robert Bunsen had invented another, better purpose for natural gas: heat.
Bunsen’s 1891 invention harnessed the power of natural gas to produce heat, and offered a way to regulate it. High school chemistry students everywhere know that invention as the Bunsen burner, and the design has persisted nearly unchanged for more than a century. Using the same principles Bunsen employed for his tiny burner, we can now make electricity, heat homes and warm water with natural gas. Pretty nifty.
The last century has witnessed enormous gains in the scale of all these technologies. Pipelines can now transport gas hundreds of miles. New ways of drilling have opened unimagined avenues for exploration and have made gas cheaper and more widely available. Today, more than half of all US homes use natural gas for one purpose or another. You may also have noticed that new generations of cars, trucks and busses are using natural gas as a cleaner, more environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional fuels.
When we think about everything that natural gas has made possible, the Greek’s temple doesn’t seem so crazy after all.