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.

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