Sources of Energy From the 1800s

In the 1800s, people used oil and natural gas to light their lamps
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The surge of innovation that accompanied the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s led to an increase in energy sources in the 19th century. New types of energy were needed to power steam engines and factories, and people were looking for less costly ways to cook and heat their homes. Towards the end of the century, energy sources were used to generate electricity rather than used directly by consumers. The energy sources of the 1800s ranged from fossil fuels to natural, renewable sources.

Natural Gas

William Hart drilled the first natural gas well in New York in 1821. After that, natural gas was the primary source of lamp fuel for most of the 19th century. Gas lines that connected to individual houses didn't exist then, so the majority of the fuel was used for street lamps. Robert Bunsen invented his Bunsen burner in 1885; this development paved the way for gas to be used for cooking and heating inside houses and other buildings. In the late 1800s, a few pipelines were built to bring natural gas to new markets.


Coal came into use as a major energy source during the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s. During this period, steam-powered engines with coal-fueled boilers were used to power ships and trains. The outbreak of the U.S. Civil War led to coal replacing charcoal as the fuel source for steel furnaces. Coal was also used to fuel furnaces and stoves inside homes. In the 1880s, coal was used to generate electricity, which was used in both homes and factories.


In the mid-1800s, oil began to replace coal as an energy source. In 1859, the first oil well was dug. Petroleum was harvested from wells, distilled into kerosene and used in lamps as a replacement for whale oil. In 1861, Nikolaus August Otto developed the internal combustion engine, which was fueled by oil. Gasoline wasn't used until 1892, when the first gasoline car was built.

Wind and Water

Natural energy sources were also in use in the 1800s. Energy from windmills was primarily used to pump water and grind grain. Waterwheels produced energy from the movement of water and were used for the same purposes as windmills. After the invention of the crankshaft and the camshaft, waterwheels were used to power sawmills and iron foundries, and later the cotton mills of the mid-1800s. In the late 1880s, hydroelectric plants were used, in addition to coal-powered plants, to produce electricity.