History of Chinese Invention - The Discovery of Natural Gas
Before there was an understanding of what natural gas was, it posed somewhat of a mystery to man. The first known observations of natural gas seeps were made in Iran prior to 2000 BCE. Early writers described the natural petroleum seeps in the Middle East, especially in the Baku region of what is now Azerbaijan, and Iran. The gas seeps, probably first ignited by lightning, provided the fuel for the “eternal fires” of the fire-worshiping religion of the ancient Persians. Plutarch's writings of about 100 to 125 CE describe such "eternal fires" in the area of present day Iraq. One of the most famous of these types of flames was found in ancient Greece, on Mount Parnassus approximately 1,000 BCE. A goat herdsman came across what looked like a 'burning spring', a flame rising from a fissure in the rock. The Greeks, believing it to be of divine origin, built a temple on the flame. This temple housed a priestess who was known as the Oracle of Delphi, giving out prophecies she claimed were inspired by the flame.
These types of springs became prominent in the religions of India, Greece, and Persia. Unable to explain where these fires came from, they were often regarded as divine, or supernatural. It wasn't until about 500 BCE that the Chinese discovered the potential to use these fires to their advantage. There is evidence that the Chinese used natural gas in certain regions as early as the fourth century BCE. Pockets of flammable gas were first discovered trapped under the Earth in areas used by the Chinese to extract brine. The Chinese quickly discovered the flammable nature of these pockets, and came to use them as convenient ways to both heat the brine they were extracting and to prepare food. Methane lamps could also be made, simply by filling a leather bladder with gas from a well, sliting a small hole in the bag and lighting escaping gas. Documents from the period maintain that a lamp prepared in this way would remain useful for an entire day.
In about the second century CE, the Chinese began systematically searching for natural gas rather than simply finding it in the process of searching for other resources. Perhaps at about this time as well, they began routing gas from deposits to other areas, sometimes as much as a day’s travel away. To do this, they tapped deposits of gas and routed it through pipes made of bamboo, sometimes crossing under and over roads to reach their destinations. As this became more common, the Chinese discovered that certain deposits of gas were unsafe to use because they were not mixed with air. These unsafe pockets of gas were put through a very complicated refining process utilizing the world’s first carburetor. After being mixed with air in this ingenious way, the gas could be used quite safely.
In America it was known to the natives who observed it issuing from the ground in various spots, chiefly along the western side of the Appalacian Highlands. It was used for illuminating purposes in Fredonia, N.Y., as early as 1821.
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The Genius of China
3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention
written by Robert K.G. Temple and published by Simon and Schuster, 1986
Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004