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William Murdock

We wouldn't be able to turn on the gas central heating, or even the gas fire, if it hadn't been for William Murdock. He was very much the Scottish lad o'pairts. He started life in 1754 in Auchinleck in Ayrshire, son of a millwright. He worked for a while with his father and then in 1777 moved south to join the famous English Midlands' company of Boulton and Watt. Boulton and Watt sent Murdock off to Cornwall in 1779 where he built mining engines. The Cornwall tin mines were big business at the time, and major purchasers of Watt engines.

Murdock was not just building them, but also making improvements to the design. He came up with a high-pressure engine that ran on wheels - a locomotive, then a fairly frightening idea. Even more frightening was his design for a steam gun. He even saw ways of making labour-saving machinery. But Murdock's big thing was his discovery of how to use coal gas. The gas had always been there, but until Murdock came along it just burned away.

Working at Redruth, Murdock found a  way of trapping and storing it and burning it on its own. The Boulton-Watt factory at Birmingham was the first place in the world to equip itself with gas lighting. The success of this convinced the company to launch itself into the gas trade. Murdock was the innovator while Matthew Boulton, as he had been with Watt, was the great salesman. Boulton and Watt faced a hard job in what was still a very low- technology society. People were afraid of the idea. The big sales pitch was the lighting up
of the House of Commons with gas. Boulton and Murdock organised a demonstration of it for the Honourable Members. Some of them nearly died with fright. When they saw the gas lamps ablaze, they assumed that the gas was coming fully ablaze all the way from the factory - and capable not only of incinerating the House but everything else along its way. Politicians don't always see as clearly as bright young boys from Ayrshire.

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