From the earliest days of the manufacture of coal gas for lighting there has been an accompanying scientific discourse and experimentation on how the distillation of coal, and its products, could be used. The vast amount of work done by scientists in the early period of coal gas manufacture has barely been recorded - yet without it the industry could not have been so successful and, indeed, may not have taken off at all.
The paper below may seem to have little to do with coal gas manufacture - but it is part of an ongoing discourse on a wide range of products and applications by scientists from many disciplines and backgrounds.
For local Greenwich people - John McCulloch was a doctor and geologist. He was appointed as an assistant surgeon rising to Surgeon in the Royal Artillery and in 1803, became Chemist to the Board of Ordnance (which means he was in Woolwich - one of a very large number of distinguished scientists there). He also lived in Blackheath where he practised as a physician.
Geological Society meeting May 1st 1812
A paper by Dr. Mculloch (Member of the Society) On Bistre and other substances produced in the distillation of wood; and on their analogy with the native Bitumens, was read.
When wood is submitted to destructive distillation, there is obtained, among other products, a black substance resembling common tar. This tar is very inflammable, and so liquid that it may be burnt in a lamp. By washing it with water either hot or cold, or submitting it to the action, of lime or of the mild alkalis, a large portion of acetic acid is separated, and the residue becomes pitchy and tenacious. It is entirely soluble in caustic alkali, in alcohol, in ether, in acetic acid, and in the mineral acids. The fat oils and the recent essential oils dissolve but little of it; but if the former are made drying, and if the latter have become brown by keeping, they then act more readily and copiously. Coloured oil of turpentine takes up a considerable quantity, but naphtha only acquires a scarcely sensible brown colour by digestion upon it. When carefully distilled at a gentle heat it is decomposed into an oily matter, at first limpid and afterwards brown, a quantity of acetic acid combined with-a little ammonia; and a spongy coal remains in the retort. In this process no inflammable gas is given out; but at a high temperature the oil is more or less decomposed, and an inflammable gas is produced which, however, does not burn with a flame by any means so bright as the gas from pit-coal. If this destructive distillation is not carried very far, the matter in the retort will be found, when cold, to be-solid, brilliant, shining, and possessed of a conchoidal fracture: its taste is burning and pungent, and its' odour is that of wood smoke it is fusible and readily inflammable. When kept melted in an open vessel till it ceases to be fusible, it becomes more and more brilliant, its fracture passes to splintery, and it assumes the perfect appearance of asphaltum. In proportion as it approaches this state it becomes less and less soluble in alcohol, and at length scarcely gives a stain to this menstruum. Naphtha has no action on it, and in this circumstance alone it differs from asphaltum. Dr. M then proceeds to an examination of the Bitumens and shows that the difference between the products of recent vegetable matter, and of the bitumens when subjected to distillation, consists in the former yielding empyreumatic acetic acid and a black pitchy matter insoluble in naphtha; while the latter afford ammonia and naphtha, but little or no acid. He then enters into a detailed investigation of the proper lies of the very important class of Lignites. Of those substances, such as peat, surturbrand, Bovey coal, &c; in which the traces of vegetable origin are not obliterated.
Submerged wood from peat mosses gave brown oil smelling of wood-tar, and refusing -to dissolve in naphtha. A compact pitchy-looking peat gave a. fetid oil resembling in odour neither wood-tar nor .bitumen, and very lightly soluble in naphtha.
Bovey brown coal gave an. oil resembling in odour, that of wood-tar, but much more soluble in naphtha: that portion of the oil which was insoluble in this menstruum had a strong odour of wood smoke. '
'The oil of jet was almost perfectly soluble in naphtha, and smelled, strongly of petroleum; but it afforded also empyreumatie acetic acid.
Thus it appears that there exists a class of fossils of undoubted vegetable origin, which exhibit the gradual progress from wood to bitumen, and in which this change has been brought about by the action not of heat but of water.
The experiments, however, of Sir James Hall seem to show that heat with compression is also capable of converting wood into coal. A critical examination of this fact was the next object of Dr. M; and he found on heating wood in close gun-barrels that a black coaly-looking sub stance was indeed produced, but that it consisted wholly of charcoal, empyreumatic acid; and wood- tar, and did not contain the smallest portion of real bitumen. Hence the experiments alluded to do by no means prove the possibility of converting vegetable matter into real coal by mere heat. It appears however to Dr. M that the consolidation of bituminous vegetable into coal is not unlikely to be the effect of subterranean heat.
The paper concludes by showing the identity of the pitch procured from the distillation of wood and the pigment called Bistre; and points out methods of obtaining it in a state better fitted than common bistre for the purposes of the artist; and also enumerates several other uses to which this substance may be economically applied.