No. 2, 2005

Alexander Yefimov ,
Lyudmila Volkova


170 years ago, the first joint-stock gas company was founded in Russia

The world gas industry has a history going back over 200 years. Alongside their colleagues in the European countries, many outstanding Russian scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers and inventors have made major contributions to the development of this industry.

Lieutenant Sobolevsky's Russian "thermolamp"

The history of the Russian gas industry began in 1811, when retired Lieutenant Pyotr Sobolevsky (1782-1841) wrote its first glorious line with his invention. Employed in the manufacturing department, he was working on translating the patent belonging to the French engineer Philippe Le Bon for a "thermolamp" - a device for obtaining lighting gas. The problem associated with obtaining and making effective and economical use of gas for lighting city streets and living premises was quite pressing for Russia at the beginning of the 19th century.

Sobolevsky took a creative approach to this task. He appreciated the merits of the French inventor's idea, and at the same time he saw substantial defects in the design, preventing the device from being used for mass production of lighting gas. He took over a year making various calculations and experiments to resolve two major tasks: to eliminate the harmful effect of the sulfur in the lighting gas and enhance the brightness of the light.

In 1811, the finished "thermolamp" was presented to the public and was highly appraised by the Russian Government. Emperor Alexander I valued the services of the Russian inventor highly and, in January 1812, gentleman Pyotr Sobolevsky was awarded the Order of Vladimir of the 4th degree. An instruction was issued to start drawing up a plan for gas street-lighting for St. Petersburg.

Unfortunately, the beginning of the 1812 Patriotic War and the invasion of Russia by Napoleon's army pushed the question of the industrial introduction of retired Lieutenant Sobolevsky's original invention on to the back-burner for a long time.

Only four years later, in August 1816, did Sobolevsky produce his "thermolamp" and use the lighting gas obtained to light workshops at the Pozhevsky plant belonging to entrepreneur Vsevolod Vsevolzhsky in the Perm Guberniya. The factory owner's instructions on this are still extant: "definitely put the thermolamp right by the winter, in order to have full lighting in the workshops, without the need for candles, which should not be purchased."

Pyotr Sobolevsky repeatedly modernized his own invention, as did his colleagues. In 1822-1823, his drawings were used to make a "thermolamp" in which, in order to obtain lighting gas, "liquid fuel" was used, this quite possibly having been oil. The owner of the Pozhevsky plant Vsevolod Vsevolzhsky installed this apparatus at his Ryabovo estate outside St. Petersburg. There is information to the effect that, from 1834 to 1844, Sobolevsky's invention was also used for lighting the arms factory in Zlatoust, the center of the Zlatoust mining area. It should be noted that subsequently, Pyotr Sobolevsky became a Colonel in the Corps of Mining Engineers and Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences, and became famous as the inventor of powder metallurgy techniques.

The next stage in the development of the Russian gas industry was associated with the activities of St. Petersburg's Governor General, Mikhail Miloradovich (1771-1825). Having participated in the "foreign" campaign of the Russian Army in 1813, General Miloradovich has been able to appreciate the gas lighting of Vienna, Paris and other European cities. It was he, when appointed Governor General of St. Petersburg in 1818, who initiated experimental work on gas lighting for the capital, using British apparatus for obtaining gas from pit coal. Thanks to his efforts, by the autumn of 1819, Russia's first gas street light was lit on one of the streets on Aptekarsky Island in St. Peters-burg. Governor Miloradovich's home theater was lit by lighting gas, as were a number of municipal establishments. Miloradovich's untimely death in December 1825 delayed the introduction of gas lighting in the capital of the Russian Empire by almost ten years, however.

The first gas joint-stock company

The 15 (27) February 1835 saw an outstanding event in the history of Russia. It was the day on which the first joint-stock company in the history of the Russian gas industry, the Company for Gas Lighting St. Pe-tersburg, was founded. One of its eminent participants was a member of the well-known noble family, Nikita Menshikov. The city's Governor General approved the articles of association of this company, which set out its lines of activity in detail. In parallel to the founding of the company, a project was approved for the development of a gas network, On lighting rooms and streets with one and the same gas and eliminating the soot and smell from gas lighting, drawn up by engineer Zhadovsky. At the end of 1835, the first factory in the Russian Empire for the production of lighting gas was constructed near the Obvodnoy Canal. Pit coal was used as the raw material, brought in by ship from Cardiff (Great Britain).

Another four years passed, however, and finally, on September 27, 1839, 204 gas lamps were ceremonially lit in St. Petersburg. Over the next 10 years, their numbers almost quadrupled, to reach 800. By the middle of the 19th century, the central streets and buildings of the capital were illuminated: the Palace Square, Bolshaya and Malaya Morskaya streets, Nevsky and Tsarsko-selsky Avenues, Passage Arcade, Noblemen's Assembly, the Technical Institute and Peter and Paul Fortress. At the Imperial Porcelain factory, production of light-shades was organized. It is known that the outstanding architect Auguste Montferrand (1786-1858), who designed St. Isaac's Cathedral, developed a series of original shapes of gas street lights.

It should be noted that the new lighting soon acquired popularity and the use of gas increased quite fast. In 1840, for instance, there was a total of only 938 municipal and private gas burners, by 1850 they numbered 10,361 and by 1859 - 17,805.

The growth rate of the gas industry was held back somewhat by dependence on regular supplies of pit coal from Cardiff and the high price of gas - 4 rubles per 1,000 ft3. In terms of the cost of lighting gas, St. Petersburg was the most expensive city in Europe. Converted into Russian prices, Londoners paid 1 ruble 44 kopecks and Berliners - 1 ruble 47 kopecks.

Yet in spite of these difficulties, the gas industry of the capital quickly gained impetus. In 1856, a second gas works was constructed on the Obvodnoy Canal and in 1860 a third, on Levashovsky Avenue.

On October 10, 1858, the St. Petersburg Gas Company was founded in the city. Gas covering a distance of 288 km were laid from the company's main gas plant on the Obvodnoy Canal along the Admiralty side of the city. Yet another gas works was constructed on Maslyanoy Pereulok on Vasilyevsky Island in 1865. In 1863-64, the gas company had 46,063 gas burners on its books. At two plants, in 1863-64, a total of about 234 million ft3 of gas were produced. By 1870, there were five gas works in operation in St. Petersburg, with a total production of over 1 billion ft3 of a gas a year.

Gas comes to Moscow

By the middle of the 19th century, Moscow was still without gas street lighting, though there were individual examples of the use of lighting gas in cultural establishments. According to some data, in 1850 a modest system of gas installations was in operation producing lighting gas to light the stages and other parts of the Bolshoy and Maly Theaters.

The first project for gas lighting of Moscow was proposed in 1862 by the German businessman Dietrich, but for a number of objective reasons, it was rejected. Plans to light the city were discussed by the Moscow General City Duma on July 14 and 16, 1864. The decision was made to grant a concession for a period of 30 years for the gas lighting of Moscow. On October 14, 1864, only three bidders took part in the tenders. The lowest price for a year's lighting by a gas lamp was offered by the British company belonging to the businessmen Bookier and Goldsmith, in the amount of 14 rubles 50 kopecks. The contract was signed on January 29, 1865, and the company, which was called the City of Moscow Gas Company Ltd., began construction of a plant on Nizhne-Susalsky Blind Alley, laying of a gas network and installation of gas lamps. By 1867, there were already over 4 thousand gas lamps on the city streets. At the beginning of the 1870s, several more gas works were operating successfully and there were 8,735 gas lamps on the streets, fed by a gas network of about 230 km of gas, while there were 3,171 private gas consumers. In 1882, Moscow was already lit by 10,000 gas lamps.

Lighting comes to the provinces

In the middle of the 19th century, gas lighting began to be introduced into many cities of the Russian Empire. At the end of 1857, gas illuminated the streets of Warsaw. The consumption of gas produced by the plant constructed by the German firm Deutsche Continental Gas reached 32 million ft3 a year, while gas burners in the capital of the Kingdom of Poland numbered 6,270.

From 1861 to 1882, gas works were constructed in Riga, Vilno, Tver, Odessa, Taganrog, Kharkov, Kiev, Rostov on Don, Kazan and other cities of the Russian Empire.

A special place on this list belonged to Kazan, with its modern gas plant, constructed by the businessman Bashmakov in 1874. Technical innovations by Russian scientists were used at the works, particularly those of Professor Alexander Butlerov (1828-1886), an outstanding chemist, later Academician of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. In 1859, after visiting a number of gas works in Europe, he created an experimental gas plant for lighting the chemistry laboratory at Kazan University. An important role in the gas lighting of Kazan was also played by Professor Vladimir Markovnikov (1839-1904), who used fuel oil as the raw material for obtaining lighting gas.

The Kazan gas works included a retort unit with two furnace complexes of 30 retorts each. Both these complexes had 9 furnaces, each of which heated 5 retorts, placed in 2 rows. The main innovation at the plant was the use of fuel oil instead of pit coal to obtain the gas. The new type of raw material paid its worth: from a pood of fuel oil (at a price of 60 kopecks), from 360 to 380 ft3 of gas were produced.

During the plant's first years in operation, the Kazan gas network reached 50 km, but the subsequent yearly increase was insignificant.

At the zenith of success

From the second half of the 19th century, scientific research was stepped up in Russia into the problems of gas lighting. In 1874, an associate of the St. Petersburg Technical Institute, engineer Alexander Letny (1848-1883), developed a method to obtain lighting gas from fuel oil. Yulia Lermontova (1846-1919), the first Russian woman to become a Dr. Sc. in chemistry, played an important role in developing rational process flows of refining.

The rate of scientific advance is also evidenced by the number of privileges for gas-related inventions granted by the Department for Trade and Manufacturing, including Alexander Koribut-Dashkevich's device for heating oil-steam boilers and Arkady Ignatov's gasoline-gas burner. The successes of the gas industry were put on show at the Exhibition of Lighting Equipment and Oil Production, held in St. Petersburg at the turn of 1887/1888.

In 1888, there were 210 gas works operating in Russia, including 30 providing gas for lighting cities, 157 - factories and 23 - railway stations. Lighting gas for city lighting was mainly produced from pit coal, with only Kazan and Yalta using petroleum gas, Kiev - a mixture of wood and petroleum gas, and Vilno and Helsingfors - wood gas. The total volume of gas produced in 1888 was about 1.9 billion ft3.

Over the 170 years from when the first joint-stock gas company was founded in Russia, drastic changes have taken place in the techniques and technology of the gas business.

Yet the historical stages in the development of the Russian gas industry clearly show that it advanced hand-in-hand with the overall development of civilization, though with its own specifics, which were determined not only by the country's economic conditions, but also the particular way in which Russian society itself was developing.

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Oil of Russia, No. 2, 2005
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