Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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@ElizaBTweetin: April 8-14 – Noxious Fumes!

Posted on April 15, 2013

Some of you have noticed that illness has driven Eliza and Mrs. Beane to their beds. Eliza’s complaints resulted from “troublesome gas” and “gassy rooms” in the house.  We now know that naphtha, a by-product of the gas light system in Mrs. Wheaton’s home, may cause coughing, choking, shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, nausea, narcosis, or even coma. It is likely that Mrs. Wheaton’s sickness can be attributed to naptha inhalation. However Mrs. Beane, sadly, had exhausted herself with housework, and inhaling naptha certainly would have made her feel worse.

Gas lighting had the benefit of providing continuous brighter light, although its open flames were almost as dangerous as lighting with candles and oil lamps.  Imagine living in a home whose illumination was accompanied by a constant hiss and clanking of the generating system.

Gas ring detail of remaining fixture in President’s House Carriage House.

Gas ring detail of remaining fixture in President’s House Carriage House.

While Taunton had a Gas Light Company as early as 1853, and similar companies existed in Attleboro and North Attleboro, Norton’s dispersed villages made such a centralized system uneconomical. Because Mrs. Wheaton installed a Springfield Gas Machine in the Public Library building that she donated to Norton in 1887, it is likely that a similar self-contained system was installed in her own home. The system pumped air into a tank of gasoline, forcing vapors into pipelines in the walls that connected to the lighting fixtures.

Gas fixture in President’s House Carriage House.

Gas fixture in President’s House Carriage House.

Mid-19th century inventors began to take advantage of the newly discovered "light ends" of crude oil almost as soon as Edwin Drake discovered systematically recoverable petroleum in 1859. Distilling refineries sprang up near the first oil wells, producing, in addition to "snake oil" and other "medicinals", the highly valuable "burning fluid" (kerosene) and "burning oil" (coal oil) and the more flammable "gasolene."

Patents for illuminating gas generators were filed as early as 1860. Typically called gas machines, these generators produced local, low-cost, gaslight vapors. Gasoline gas machines cost about $1000 installed, an affordable price for hotels, resorts, offices, and the mansions of the wealthy. The common man bought burning fluid for cheap brass and glass lamps, and people died by the thousands when such lamps spilled their flaming contents. Because a municipal gas lighting system cost as much as $25-50,000, most small rural towns could not afford to install gasworks. (Wheaton Female Seminary converted to electricity as late as 1897-98!)

A typical installation of a gas machine in a basement appears below. A pair of pipes ran from the generator; one was attached to an air pump to supply pressurized air to the tank of gasoline, while the other delivered gasoline vapor (naptha) to a network of pipes for distribution to fixtures throughout the house.

Springfield Gas Machine

Springfield Gas Machine

Donald W. Linebaugh, author of “The Springfield Gas Machine - Illuminating Industry and Leisure, 1860s--1920s” explains the process. The air pump was a cylindrical copper or steel shell housing a wheel and partially filled with water. A heavy concrete weight was suspended from the basement ceiling beams and attached by a wire cable to the shaft of the pump wheel. As gravity caused the weight to descend, the wheel inside the pump case was turned, forcing air through the connecting pipe. By this means, a constant pressure of air was maintained in the air pipe, the gas generator, and in the burners in the building‘s fixtures.

If you are interested in a scholarly discussion of lighting homes with the Springfield Gas Machine, read “A Brilliant and Pleasant Light” in Historical Archaeology, available at Wheaton.


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