David Melville And The First American Gas Light Patents


Reprinted from The Rushlight, December 1998. Copyright The Rushlight Club. All rights reserved.

There is much written on the history of gas lighting, from accounts in the late nineteenth century to those in the late twentieth. These early histories almost invariably focus on discoveries in England, from Dr. James Clayton's primitive experiments with a gas filled bladder pricked with a pin and lighted, through William Murdoch's practical successes. (1) The more adventurous historian sometimes even includes an account of Philippe Le Bon's "Thermolamp" in France. (2)

By way of contrast there is precious little available on the beginnings of gas lighting in America. To make matters worse, this information tends to be contained in disparate and far-flung periodicals that are more than a hundred years old. Surprisingly, even in Denys Peter Myers' book, Gas Lighting in America (still unchallenged as a reference twenty years after its publication), early accounts of American gas lights warrant only a footnote, albeit, in typical Myers' fashion, a well-documented one. (3)

The reason there has been so little written is that the literature, like the lighting of this time period, is rather dim and isolated. It should be admitted at the outset that it is difficult, if not impossible, to speak with certainty of the absolute first instance of gas being utilized on this side of the Atlantic. The question of semantics arises: are we speaking of street lighting, commercial lighting, or domestic lighting? The question of production and different processes also comes into play: is the gas produced by the distillation of coal, wood, whale oil, or even walnuts? (4) Writing on the topic of gas lighting in general, Loris S. Russell noted, "Assigning credit to the original inventor of gas lighting is a matter of deciding what is a gas light, a decision, unfortunately, that tends to be influenced a little by national pride."(5) Faced with the scarcity of evidence and the reality of many "firsts," most writers have simply ignored the subject. (6)

One "first" that can be discussed with certainty however, concerns U.S. patents, although here there has been some confusion. (7) Over the past five years, the author has been engaged in the research of U.S. patents relating to gas lighting from 1810 to 1910, pulling nearly 6,000 separate patents on this topic alone. Based upon this examination it can be stated with confidence that the first American gas light patent was granted on March 24, 1810 to David Melville of Newport, Rhode Island. (8)

David Melville (Figure 1) was born on March 21, 1773 in Newport to David and Mary (West) Melville. Although nothing is known of his early years, his ancestors came from Scotland and his family had been in Newport since 1731 (9) Based on an advertisement in the Rhode Island Republican, in 1803 he apparently ran a hardware and stationery store. (10) On December 13, 1804 Melville's father died. Perhaps now freed from this stabilizing influence, he soon began experiments in the new field of gas lighting, possibly in the following year.

Melville conducted his experiments in the basement of his home on the corner of Pelham and Thames streets, which occupied a conspicuous site across from Townsend's Coffee House, "the only hotel or tavern in the town." (11) Precisely when this historic work began is a matter of some speculation. In 1859, an editor in possession of some of Melville's private papers wrote "there is evidence that in 1811, and probably earlier, he was engaged in those experiments . . ."(12) In 1876 the American Gas Light Journal researched the question and found that "In vain are the [news]papers of the day searched for further information on the subject matter of [Melville's gas lights], as though an experiment of that kind could not be safely commented on."(13) Some months later the Journal had apparently gained some confidence, stating rather emphatically "in 1806 he had so far succeeded that he was enabled to light more than twenty rooms on his premises; by means of a large lantern he lighted Pelham street as it had never been lighted before." (14) If he indeed succeeded by this early date, it does not seem unreasonable that his work had begun in the previous year as some have surmised. (15)

Regardless of the precise date, it seems clear that the crowds that gathered to witness Melville's illuminations were impressed with the new light. The Providence Press wrote in 1859, "It is said by those now living, who saw it, that the gas light manufactured by Mr. Melville was very brilliant, and he claimed that it was also economical. (16) While the lack of coverage in the contemporary press seems odd, in the following years, "Thousands came to look, at times more than 50 in an evening. Melville's light burned like a new sun compared to the dim glow of the candles and oil lamps they knew." (17)

On March 24, 1810, Melville received the first U.S. gas light patent, thus securing his place in American lighting history. His invention is listed as a "Lamp, Gas" in a report issued by the Commissioner of Patents. (18) Unfortunately, this is nearly all we know of the patent. On December 15, 1836 the U.S. Patent Office and all the records and models contained in it, were destroyed by a catastrophic fire. (19) While some of the patents were reconstructed from the inventor's copies of their patent papers, Melville's 1810 patent was not among those. (20)

Melville continued to tinker with and improve his device. At the end of the year 1812 he readied an attempt at commercial success by employing the brass founders Otis Chaffee and Joseph Lyon to construct gas machinery and ornamental fixtures. In September of 1859, Chaffee and Lyon were both still alive and in possession of their original account books for the work that they performed for Melville. The relevant entries follow:

December 21, 1812, fixing gas [generating] stove $ 6.00
December 31, 1812, making copper pipe $ 6.50
January 3, 1813, making copper pipe $ 6.00
January 3, 1813, 3 brass chandeliers $15.00
February 2, 1813, 6 days work on gasometer at $3 (per day] $18.00
February 19, 1813, altering brass chandeliers $1.75
February 19, 1813, making 4 branches to chandeliers $2.00 (21)

The advertisement ran continuously through May. This offer and other sales pitches (such as the broadside in (Figure 6) soon produced results and gained Melville a business partner and influential friend.

From his business on State Street in Boston, Captain Winslow Lewis accumulated his wealth as the de facto "Superintendent for lighting the United States light houses." A notable lighting figure in his own regard, he patented an illuminated ship's binnacle on June 24, 1808 and an Argand lamp combined with a parabolic reflector and lens on June 8, 1810. (29) By the end of 1812, Lewis had received at least $16,000 from the U.S. government in exchange for installing his Argand devices in lighthouses. (30) Lewis' capture at sea by the British on March 1, 1813 while en route to the Charleston Lighthouse reminds us of the context of the times, as the War of 1812 had another two years to run its course. While Lewis was released after only four days, the lighthouses (and the last $8,000 of his contract with the government) would have to wait until the conclusion of the war. Flush with cash and with his primary lighting interests postponed, Lewis formed an active partnership with Melville who apparently assigned him half of his patent rights in exchange for a $2,000 investment in the enterprise. Lewis also arranged for the manufacture of their gas machinery in Boston. (31)

A modified advertisement on June 5, 1813 indicated that gas lights had been installed at a Cotton manufactory allegedly belonging to Seth Bemis located at Watertown, Mass. (seven miles west of Boston). (32) All of the scattered literature on Melville throughout this century and last accepts this claim at face value. Nevertheless, a passing sentence in an 1863 genealogical register sheds considerable light on this installation by the mention that Lewis introduced "cotton duck into his factory at Watertown" [italics added]. (33) It seems clear that Lewis' Watertown textile factory was the same as Bemis' Watertown textile factory, and Lewis' involvement was shielded from the advertising public to create an aura of impartiality for the new installation. (34) This advertisement also provided the first public evidence of Melville's partnership with Lewis, mentioning them both as "proprietors of Letters Patent" for the "Improved Gas-Lamp." (35)

Unfortunately, Lewis was an impatient investor. On November 7, 1813, Lewis wrote Melville that he was concerned by a lack of sales and not inclined to invest any more capitol in the enterprise. (36) Nevertheless, by November 13th a second installation, in the Wenscott Manufacturing Co.'s factory, "1 1/4miles from Mill Bridge" near Providence, was completed. (37) With Lewis' involvement the manufacturing foundation of the effort must have been well established since they now claimed "An apparatus for any number of lights can be furnished in ten days after application ... (38)

Just when things were again starting to look promising, Melville encountered a series of setbacks. Existing installations began to experience problems. On December 9, 1813 the Wenscott Company complained that they "cannot make the gas pass from the condenser to the cistern" and that the gasometer contained "only enough for two hours' consumption, instead of three, as calculated. (39) Melville also had to raise his prices. Starting at $10.00 per light in February, by November 20, 1813 he found it necessary to increase his charge to $13.00 per light. (40) Naturally, potential customers were displeased. On January 6, 1814 Oshea Wilder, the proprietor of a wire manufactory in Paterson, New Jersey, wrote, "[I] am considerably disappointed at the price you ask for the lights... the price you ask would not permit us to avail ourselves of it ... I most sincerely wish that the gas lights were in general use, as I believe they would be highly useful to the manufacturer." (41)

Mentioned nowhere in the company advertising was another installation, at the Arkwright Mill near Providence (perhaps closer to Pawtucket), principally belonging to Mr. James De Wolf of Bristol. It was at Arkwright that something went seriously wrong. As the American Gas Light Journal explained in 1859, "An explosion took place, blowing [a] small outer building to pieces, and the factory proprietor's courage also [italics added]." (42) A full account of the accident, "gathered entirely from recollection," was printed in the journal Iron Age:

Mr. Abraham Churchill, employed in the capacity of watchman, saw what he thought to be a light moving about the mill, and went to the building adjoining, which contained the gasometer. Entering the building, he removed the candle from the lantern, and holding the flame to the mouth of a large stopcock, turned on the gas. The flames were instantly drawn within the gasometer, which exploded, destroying the building and so injuring Mr. Churchill that he died the following morning. (43)

This was probably the first American gas industry fatality, foreshadowing many mindless examples of natural selection in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the contemporary newspapers apparently let us down again as Iron Age added, "We have not discovered (although we have diligently searched) the date of Mr. Churchill's death, nor any references to the accident in the public prints." (44) What is clear however, is that the gasometer was not rebuilt.

While Melville's efforts were to continue (Lewis apparently advanced more capital by the end of the year), this incident and the difficulties already mentioned were fatal to his attempt to introduce gas lighting into manufactories. He maintained the lights in his home until 1817, the same year he received a one year contract from the U.S. Government for a trial of gas in the Beaver Tail Lighthouse near Newport. Nevertheless, this experiment and its dramatic twists and turns is another story.

Instead of being on the cusp of a great new American industry, Melville was, in fact, too far ahead of his time. Like all of his contemporaries, his gas burners were primitive and inefficient (Figure 5), and his wooden cisterns with pipes made of tin and copper leaked. From a historical perspective, these problems are not surprising. The issue of distribution leakage (later known as "street loss") was to hound a much more sophisticated gas industry well into the 1870s and it was not until electric lights competed with gas that efficient and economical burners were available. James Flexner wrote of similar problems at the turn of the eighteenth century in his landmark work on steamboats:

"In America, nothing that could not be made or repaired by a village blacksmith was capable of general application. This created a paradoxical situation: Americans were given to improvising gadgets, but as soon as the gadget became complicated, it was forced into the position of a freak, a philosophical toy. (45)"

Despite his ultimate failure, Melville's pioneering work anticipated a multimillion-dollar industry that was to sweep the country by mid-century. He died in Newport on September 3, 1856 at the age of 84.

One hundred and thirty nine years ago, in an account of Melville's work, the authors concluded "we are happy that it has fallen to our lot to do justice to his memory, the perpetuation of which, in this connection, we leave to others."(46) A fitting summary nearly two hundred years after those experiments in Newport, because recognition of his contributions has nearly been lost and, of course, we are those "others."

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