Education About Gas

A brief history of natural gas

 By Robin Wylie
About gas

In the last century, natural gas has grown to become one of the most popular fuels on Earth. But humanity’s relationship with natural gas is much longer, and more eventful, than that…

Our ancestors’ first contact with natural gas must have been a mysterious one. The existence of natural gas was only known to ancient peoples by way of naturally-ignited ground seeps, which, with no obvious source, clearly made a mystical impression.
In around 1000 BC, for instance, the ancient Greeks constructed the legendary temple of Delphi—famous for its eponymous oracle—on the site of a natural gas seep located on Mount Parnassus. The priestesses fulfilling the role of oracle would supposedly enter a trance brought on by the rising gases, and their prophecies could determine everything from when farmers planted their seeds to when an empire declared war.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi (Юкатан, Wikimedia)

Natural gas also held a divine status for the ancient Indians, who regarded the fires of ignited natural gas seeps as incarnations of the Hindu goddess Jwala Ji. A famous temple to the goddess, located on the site of one such seep, contains a continually burning flame, and could date to as early as 400 BC.
By that time, elsewhere in the world, people were already putting natural gas to more practical use. By the 4th century BC, the Chinese were drilling for natural gas (predating the first natural gas wells in the Western world by 2,300 years), which they used to boil large vats of brine in order to produce salt. The Chinese were also known to transport natural gas using hollow bamboo pipes.
Some 500 years later, the ancient Persians joined the act. Legend has it that, in around 100 AD, the King of Persia had his home built next to the site of an ignited natural gas seep, which he used to heat the royal kitchen.

Despite these impressive early innovations in Asia and the Middle East, however, it was not until the 19th century AD that natural gas began to be harnessed on a commercial scale.
In 1821, William Hart—known as the “father of natural gas”—dug a small natural gas well near Lake Erie, in the northeastern United States, before piping the gas through hollow logs to nearby houses. (In the 1620s, French explorers had recorded Native Americans igniting natural gas seeps in the same area).
Hart’s well was tiny by modern standards, just 27 feet deep, however, his work was seminal to the US natural gas industry. Following the success of his wells, a group of entrepreneurs formed the Fredonia Gas Light Company in 1858, the first commercial gas company in the United States.
For most of the 19th century, natural gas was used primarily as fuel for lamps. But it was soon to transition from a source of light to its modern role as a source of heat.
In the 1890s, cities began using electricity for their streetlights so gas producers began searching for new uses for their product. The invention of the Bunsen burner in 1885 had finally allowed the controlled burning of natural gas, by mixing it with air in the right proportions, thus opening up new opportunities for the use of natural gas as a source of heat in applications such as cooking and heating.

Natural gas pipeline near the Iran-Armenia border (Mikhail Harutyunyan, Wikimedia)

Another barrier—that of transporting the gas from well to consumer—was soon removed by the advent of pipelines.
One of the first substantial natural gas pipelines was constructed in the US in 1891, running for around 120 miles between gas wells in central Indiana to the city of Chicago. More significant pipeline construction began in the 1920s, and after World War II, new welding techniques, along with advances in pipe rolling and metallurgy, further improved pipeline reliability. This post-war pipeline construction boom lasted well into the 1960s, and allowed for the construction of thousands of miles of pipeline around the world.

With natural gas now a widely distributed commodity, new uses were discovered. These included using natural gas to heat homes and operate appliances, as well as the generation of electricity. Industries also began to use natural gas in manufacturing and processing plants, for example in the manufacturing of plastics and agricultural fertilizers.
In recent decades, the role of natural gas has continued to evolve. Since the late 1980s, the use of natural gas for electricity generation has been increasing steadily across the world, motivated in part by its higher combustion efficiency and lower CO2 emissions relative to coal. What’s more, the advent of Liquid Natural Gas in the 1990s has brought about a second revolution in natural gas transport, allowing transit by ship as well as by pipeline.
This, combined with the ability of natural gas to hybridize with renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind, suggests that humanity’s long and storied history of natural gas use is far from being over.

SEE MORE: The art of oil by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Robin Wylie
Freelance earth/space science journalist. Currently finishing off a PhD in volcanology at University College London.