Progressive Enlightenment
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From Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology

Progressive Enlightenment

The Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780-1820

By Leslie Tomory

An argument that the gas industry was the first integrated large-scale technological network and that it signaled a new wave of industrial innovation.





An argument that the gas industry was the first integrated large-scale technological network and that it signaled a new wave of industrial innovation.

In Progressive Enlightenment, Leslie Tomory examines the origins of the gaslight industry, from invention to consolidation as a large integrated urban network. Tomory argues that gas was the first integrated large-scale technological network, a designation usually given to the railways. He shows how the first gas network was constructed and stabilized through the introduction of new management structures, the use of technical controls, and the application of means to constrain the behavior of the users of gas lighting.

Tomory begins by describing the contributions of pneumatic chemistry and industrial distillation to the development of gas lighting, then explores the bifurcation between the Continental and British traditions in distillation technology. He examines the establishment and consolidation of the new industry by the Birmingham firm Boulton & Watt, and describes the deployment of the network strategy by the entrepreneur Frederick Winsor. Tomory argues that the gas industry represented a new wave of technological innovation in industry because of its dependence on formal scientific research, its need for large amounts of capital, and its reliance on business organization beyond small firms and partnerships—all of which signaled a departure from the artisanal nature and limited deployment of inventions earlier in the Industrial Revolution. Gas lighting was the first important realization of the Enlightenment dream of science in the service of industry.


$34.00 S ISBN: 9780262016759 360 pp. | 9 in x 7 in 41 b&w photos, 6 tables


  • [Tomory's] well-written and fully illustrated work makes a strong case for the gas network as the pioneer of the century's technological networks, which included water, railways, and electricity.


  • This well written and cleanly organized study is especially good on internal developments at Boulton & Watt and GLCC, and draws extensively on the archives of both companies. It offers an important comment on early relationships between science and industry, and demonstrates how significant an analysis of entrepreneurship may be for our understanding of industrial revolutions.



  • Leslie Tomory has written one of the finest industry studies of the Industrial Revolution to appear in many decades. The gas light industry is conceptually as important to the understanding of economic growth in early-nineteenth-century Europe as cotton and steam, and his book is the definitive study of it. This intelligent and meticulously-researched work should be required reading for students of the Industrial Revolution and anyone interested in innovation in an earlier age.

    Joel Mokyr

    Professor of Economics, Northwestern University

  • In this fascinating history of the origins of the coal gas industry, Leslie Tomory offers important insights into the connections between science and technology in the Industrial Revolution and the role played by entrepreneurs in early industrialization. In the process he also adds greatly to our understanding of the emergence of large-scale technological systems in the nineteenth century.

    Paul Israel

    Director and General Editor, Thomas A. Edison Papers Project, Rutgers University

  • Leslie Tomory has produced a comprehensive history of the origins and early development of gas lighting that will appeal especially to historians of chemistry and chemical technology, as well as social and economic historians. In a splendidly rich narrative that links chemistry with technology and urban history, Tomory argues convincingly that gas lighting was part of the first wave of science-based technologies to be exploited in the service and improvement of mankind.

    William H. Brock

    Emeritus Professor of History of Science, University of Leicester, UK

  • Leslie Tomory's account is original, insightful, and admirably researched, the first to show convincingly and in detail how the technology of a major industry had its beginnings in an instrument invented in the chemistry laboratory. He makes a compelling argument for considering gaslight as the first major science-based network technology of the industrial era. This is an important book.

    Trevor Levere

    University of Toronto