Getting lit with William Hart

  Last updated April 9, 2020 at 10:25 am

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The tale of natural gas discovery is filled with unexpected occurrences, and no chapter is more eventful than that of the “father of natural gas” William Hart.


Early facilities were no more than a wooden cabin, like this oil well and pipeline built in 1859 in Pennsylvania by Edwin Drake.


This article is sponsored by Bright-r.


Natural gas has an array of uses including electricity generation, heating and transportation; it’s something that we rely on in our day-to-day lives.


The odourless, colourless gas is made from decomposed plants and animals. Over millions of years, this decomposition creates the natural gas which is then stored deep underground in rock formations.


While we couldn’t imagine living without it now, it wasn’t until the 1820’s that natural gas was harnessed on a large scale, and it was all thanks to a man named William Hart, a washtub and a gun.


Yes, you read that right – but we’ll get to that in a little bit.




Also: Why the next generation of rockets will be powered by methane




Our long history with natural gas


Our ancestor’s interactions with natural gas can be described as one of mystery and intrigue.


Take the ancient Greeks for example. Around 1000 BCE, people would travel to the temple of Delphi, which sat on Mount Parnassus. Unbeknown to the ancient Greeks, the site was built on a natural gas seep.


Inside the temple the oracle priestess would enter a trance  before delivering her prophecies. Now, scientists suggest that these prophecies were hallucinations brought on by the gas seeping from below.


By the 4th century BCE, the Chinese were already drilling for natural gas. Using hollow bamboo pipes, they would transport the natural gas to boil sea water. 500 years later, the ancient Persians joined in.




Also: Why environmentalists work in the oil and gas industry




However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that people began to harness natural gases on a commercial scale. The British began using natural gas in 1785. They used the gas produced from coal to lighthouses and the streets.


It wasn’t until the early 1820s when William Hart, the “father of natural gases”, really exploded onto the natural gas scene that its global potential was realised.


William Hart

William Hart


The father of natural gasses


According to the Buffalo News, the story goes like this: in Freedonia, New York, local gunsmith William Hart noticed a group of kids burning gas that was bubbling up on a creek. Curious, he took his wife’s washtub, determined to trap the gas.


Disclaimer: Don’t try this next part at home.


Then, William drilled a hole in the tub, placed a gun barrel inside the tub, fired, and lit up the gas.


Realising what he was standing on, he dug the first gas well in the United States.


The exact year of this historical moment is disputed; some records state 1821, while others suggest 1825. Regardless of when, once the well was dug, it supplied gas to gristmill and four other buildings – including the all-important town tavern.


“He had no guarantee when he drilled that hole that he would find gas,” says Mark Twichell, one of the owners of the original site, in an interview with The Buffalo News.


The first commercial gas company in the US


By modern standards, Hart’s well was tiny – a mere 27 feet (8.2 metres) deep, compared to today’s wells that go down more than 30,000 feet (9 kilometres). However, keep in mind that Hart did this all by hand. Researchers suggest that it’s likely Hart attached a drill bit to the end of a sapling which had rope tied to it.


The pipeline to transport the gas was made from hollowed-out logs, connected by rags and tar.


According to accounts, the well produced gas up until 1858. Following Hart, a group of entrepreneurs formed the Fredonia Gas Light Company – the first commercial gas company in the United States.


From simple beginnings and Hart’s washtub, gas has now been applied to many industries across the world. Technological development has seen gas being extracted more efficiently and in larger quantities from more sources… and all without requiring a shotgun. And its use has expanded greatly too, no longer powering streetlights, it’s now in everything from our home kitchens to possibly being a source of hydrogen in the future. With the technological advances over the last 150 years, it’s safe to say Hart wouldn’t recognise a gas facility today.


William Hart died in 1865, and researchers say it’s worth preserving his story.


“He was able to use available technology and apply that to what he had observed in an unprecedented way,” Twichell says.


“To me, it represents the ingenuity of one person being observant to the environment and having acquired some technological skills.”


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About the Author

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Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


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