The history of natural gas dates back to ancient times, although its commercialization is relatively recent. As early as 1000 BC, the Greeks built a temple on Mount Parnassus, the site of where natural gas seeped from the ground in a flame. The temple housed a priestess who was known as the Oracle of Delphi, who gave prophecies that she claimed were inspired by the flame.
How did Natural Gas form?
The formation of natural gas took place hundreds of million years ago. Between 300-400 million years ago, tiny marine plants and animals which died were buried on the ocean floor, covered by layers of silt and sand. As the years went by (millions of years, actually), the remains were buried deeper and deeper. The tremendous heat and pressure exerted by these layers of silt and sand turned these remains into oil and natural gas.
After it is formed, natural gas tends to move within the sediments and rocks in which it is formed via the fissures, fractures and pore spaces which occur naturally below the earth surface. Some of these gas actually make it to the surface, showing up as seeps and sometimes resulting into a fountain of fire, while in some cases these gas molecules travel until they are trapped by impermeable layers of clay, salt, shale or rock.
In order to access these resources, you must drill through these layers of sand, silt, and rock.
First Natural Gas Wells
The Chinese were the first to find proper use of this gas. In 500BC, they were able to construct wells, complete with boreholes, drill bits fashioned from silver ingots, and bamboo to extract and transport the briny mixture of salt and gas from the ground. It is believed the origin of natural gas wells took place in the Sichuan Province of China where a great salt industry was already in place.
The ancient Chinese were far ahead of the western world in terms of well-building and extraction techniques. We often assume these technologies began in the West during the industrial revolution, but that just isn’t the case.
For instance, the Chinese developed methods and tools for all kinds of well-drilling situations and problems: different bits for different rock formations, tools and methods to deal with cave-ins, lost tools in the bottom of the well, deviated wells, etc.
Another testament to their expertise and advancement in well-building, the Shenghai Well in 1835 was the first well with a depth of 1,000 meters. This was twice as deep as the natural gas wells in the United States at the time.
Natural Gas History in the U.S.
Natural gas was identified in America as far back as 1626 when a French explorer named M. de La Salle and a missionary by the name of M. de Galinee were introduced to natural gas springs by Native Americans in what is today, Ontario County, New York. It would be 200 years later before natural gas would be commercialized in the United States.
By most accounts, the first commercial natural gas well in the United States was drilled by William Hart in Fredonia, New York in 1825. The gas was provided to a few local stores and a mill. He is today regarded as the “father of natural gas” as he founded the first American natural gas company – Fredonia Gas Light Company in 1857.
No photographs of William Hart are known to exist but the story of how the natural gas industry in the United States began has been written down and preserved by Lois Barris.
Of Mr. Hart, she writes:
Lois Barris, “Fredonia Gas Light and Waterworks Company”
William A. Hart, described as a practical and energetic man, goes the credit for drilling that first well and establishing Fredonia’s claim as the first community to be lighted by natural gas. Mr. Hart was a skilled gunsmith and machinist who fashioned his own tools used to sink that first well. A bubbling gas spring in the bed of the creek led to the location of the well at that exact spot.
Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen
Natural gas was used almost completely as a source of light during the 19th century. But the invention of the Bunsen Burner by Robert Bunsen in 1885 opened up vast new opportunities to use the gas, some of which included home heating and cooking.
It is believed by some however, that his contribution to the design and implementation of what would be called the Bunsen Burner was not primary. Nevertheless, the utilization of natural gas to produce not only a flame, but a quality of flame not possible with natural air flow. This led to the controlled combustion of natural gas which would go on to play a huge role in energy and heat production throughout the 20th century and up until today.
Transporting Natural Gas
It is all well (pun intended) and good to discover natural gas and devise useful applications, but without proper transportation it would not have been able to reach people who didn’t live in a gas-rich area.
One of the first big pipelines to accomplish this was built in 1891 to transport natural gas approximately 120 miles from gas wells in Indiana into Chicago.
This pipeline was not very efficient. It wouldn’t be until after WWII that pipelines would advance closer to what they are today, thanks to advances in metallurgy, pipe design, and welding techniques.
Natural Gas Today
Thanks to fracking, the amount of natural gas extracted in the United States has grown exponentially over the last decade. This has helped to create more affordable energy and with a surplus it has become an exported commodity. As the cleanest of the fossil fuels, this natural resource will continue to power our lives for years to come.