"Mr. Henfrey's Discovery"

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An 1802 article from The Balance, and Columbian Repository, showing the positive reception by George Wythe and other Richmonders to Benjamin Henfrey's experiment with coal gas for illumination.

An 1802 article, published by The Balance, and Columbian Repository, confirms that Benjamin Henfrey discovered coal gas as a means of light before it became more popular.[1] Henfrey was an English-born geologist and entrepreneur who came to America roughly ten years prior to this experiment. George Wythe and several other noteworthy figures publicly gave their approval of Henfrey's experiment. [2]

Article text, 14 September 1802

Page 293


It was some time since announced in the public papers' that Mr. Benjamin Henfrey, had discovered a method of applying inflamable gas collected from pit coal and wood, for the purpose of giving light. From the following publication, which we copy from Poulson's Philadelphia paper, it appears that Mr. Henfrey has perfected his plan, and is likely to render it of great utility. Edit. Bal.



THE gentlemen who were invited by Mr. Henfrey to attend the experiments upon the New-Light at the Hay-Market Garden, requesting him to communicate to them in writing the various uses to which it might be applied, and the expences of his plan, compared with others now in use; whereupon, he immediately laid before them the following:


Being advised to communicate my ideas in writing, I, (of course) not being prepared, have to do it in haste, which I hope will be received as a reason for imperfection. My ideas of usefulness are as follow:

1st. As applicable to light houses for the Sea Coast.

2d. That the light may be applied by an Octagon Light House, or any other form, for the use of towns.[3]

3d. To manufactories on the principles of æconomy and safety.

4th. For domestic use, for the same reasons.

With regard to expence, my opinion is, that the light will cost nothing, (first cost of the apparatus, and attendance excepted) as the coal will be of more value after the gas and tar are extracted than before.

The sanction you have honored my labors with, will ever be retained with the most respectful remembrance, by


Your obliged and most humble servant,

WE, the subscribers, who have attended the various experiments which Mr. Henfrey has made with the Gas produced from wood and pit coal, hereby certify, to all whom it may concern, that in our opinion it may be advantageously applied to all the purposes he hath enumerated, and at an expense considerably less than of any other plan with which we have hitherto been acquainted. We are decidedly of opinion that the Gas produced from Pit Coal yields a more vivid and uniform light than that from wood, and by comparison with the light from oil or tallow, it appeared to us, as it proceeded from a tube of about a quarter of an inch diameter, to be nearly in the proportion of one to twenty. We have witnessed with pleasure the Gas applied to culinary purposes. The apparatus is on a simple plan, and not expensive.

G. Wythe, * John Warden, William Hay, Edward Carrington, † John Hoster, ‡ J. M’Clurg, M. D. William Richardson, Rev’d John Buchanan, Henry Banks, John Graham, Charles J. Macmurdo, Geo. Fisher, William Booker, Benjamin Du Val.

Richmond, August 11th, 1802.

* Chancellor.
† Supervisor of the Revenue.
‡ Mayor of Richmond.

AUGUST 15, 1802.

Having seen the manner in which Mr. Henfrey applies inflammable Gas collected from pit coal or wood, for the purpose of giving light, I have no hesitation in declaring, that the discovery appears to me to be not only ingenious, but capable of producing many real and extensive advantages. The manner is simple, attended with little expence, and certain in effecting the end proposed.

(Signed) J. MADISON,


To the Gentlemen composing the Committee for investigating the utility of the above discovery.


I cannot express the satisfaction I feel on reading your report on the utility of my mode of producing and applying light from the Gas of wood and pit coal. I will not offend you with thanks for your kind attention to a stranger; but I will assure you that I will use every means in my power to render the discovery as generally useful as possible, which I am certain will best accord with your views and wishes. I think myself singularly fortunate that Bishop Madison should happen to come to town before the experiments closed. The polite and friendly manner with which he honored me his approbation, will always operate as a cordial in the hour of fatigue when I am engaged in applying the discovery to large works.

Permit me to assure you of the perfect respect with which I remain,

Your greatly obliged
And most humble servant,

Richmond, August 20, 1802.

See also


  1. "Balance, and Columbian Repository, 14 September, 1802,"
  2. "To Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Henfrey, 19 December 1801," Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 3, 2019.
  3. "Henfrey Light Tower," Rocket Werks, Atlas RVA! Project, 6 December 2015.

External links