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Shedding some light on the subject

We take the ability to see and function once the sun has gone down as a matter of fact thing, even possibly an inalienable right to have electric light at our beck and call. Once the power goes off for any length of time we're plunged into a problem our ancestors faced every day and on the whole we're usually found wanting. No TV, no Internet, in some cases no heat, but probably the worst, no light to see by. Being able to function in a darkened home is difficult at times, but think how much more so to find your way around outside, possibly in an area you are unfamiliar with in pitch darkness with only a small oil lamp or flickering candle for guidance.

This would be the norm for anyone out and about up until the 19th century, however the story of how we are now able to wander through most parts of wherever we live in illuminated comfort is a rather strange one.

The man credited with the idea of the street light was a Frenchman, Phillippe Le Bon. He experimented with the gas given off by burning wood and although he produced several laboratory tests, he never managed to scale his idea up to make it tenable outside.

It was the Scottish engineer and inventor William Murdoch who while experimenting in his back garden in Cornwall, found a way to produce gas, by heating coal in a closed container and collecting and cleaning the smoke. He piped the gas into his house, made holes in the pipes and lit the gas there. This produced a light much brighter and safer than from candles or oil lamps. Murdoch seems to have confined his interests to the scientific and not the economic application of his experiments and surprisingly didn't patent his invention.

As always, around any technological advance there are the people who can and people who can't. Those that can, like Murdoch and others devote themselves to the science involved in the project. Those who can't can usually see the commercial side and a opportunity for self advancement. Enter Friedrich Albrecht Winzer.

Winzer, a native of Brunswick, Germany was definitely in the can't camp. Some sources quote him as an inventor, but there don't seem to be any inventions credited to him before he washed up on our shores. He seems to have been one of those who make it their business to move in the same circles as the scientific elite and magpie like accumulate anything bright and shiny that could have been to his advantage. He wasn't that worried about understanding the workings of such things, but the basics would be enough to help him to an advantageous position, in short a bit of a chancer.

It appears that the first thing he does after coming to London is to change his name, anglicising it to Frederick Albert Winsor. He had spent time in France and had ingratiated himself into Phillippe Le Bon's circle of colleagues and gleaned as much information regarding the wood gas experiments as he could. Although his grasp on the science was less that adequate, he could see the advantages to bringing light to city streets. Following Le Bon's failure to scale up his experiments it looks like Fred decided to ditch the Frenchman and seek others to latch on to. Once in London he inveigled his way into the fringes of the Royal Society and having heard about Murdoch's experiments on coal gas busied himself with collecting as much information as he could.

Ever the showman, Winsor with much help from enlisted scientists staged a demonstration of the coal gas technology for street lighting at the Lyceum theatre in 1804. The fact that he decided not to demonstrate before the Royal Society is a rather glaring pointer to the lack of understanding he had for the subject, but this didn't stop him from patenting the system the same year.

So, Frederick has the technology safely in his hands and has brought himself to the attention of the scientific community and to interested parties in the wider world, but he lacked a patron and also the clout of influential friends to help him realise the potential. He decides that he needs an endorsement at the highest level for his project, and there was none higher in the Kingdom than George III. For most of his adult life George had concerned himself with the sciences and technological advances. However, due to a reoccurring bout of mental health problems George is confined to the sanctuary of his apartments, rarely seen in public and out of the reach of the entrepreneur. His son, the vacuous Prince of Wales was in charge as the Prince Regent, but he was an unpopular figure and Frederick must have decided that to include him in the project would have been detrimental. Undeterred, he embarks on a plan to include the monarch by proxy, alighting on the King's approaching birthday to set up a public display of his coal gas street lighting.

Winsor was so deficient in mechanical information, that he was unable to give proper directions for the construction of the apparatus, and advisors had to be discreetly approached to instruct the workman on how to proceed, but on June 4, 1807 Pall Mall in St James' was adorned with several lamps to light the monarch back to his apartments in St James' Palace after his birthday celebrations.

Although refining the concept over the next few years, Frederick's attempt to gain a charter to establish a coal gas producing company fell on deaf ears and without the opportunity to monetise the idea he lost interest in the scheme, returning to France to try and establish the same in that country. He never managed the partial success that he found in London and his company made little progress and was liquidated in 1819.

As a footnote to the story I found a passage in a journal attributed to the Prince of Wales in 1807. As I mentioned it seems that Winsor decided not to involve the unpopular Regent in the project, but that doesn't seem to have prohibited the prince from climbing on the bandwagon following the positive reporting of the tests by the media of the time. In a statement he says that due to (his) "noble independent mind induced him to become one of the exalted patrons of this infant project", rather a grand statement from a man not renowned for his mental abilities, so the two men must have got on famously, neither really understanding the subject.

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