There is a legend about the origin of natural gas. In Greece, one summer day, a herdsman was tending his goats and noticed that they acted rather strangely when they wandered to a particular area. The herdsman decided to investigate this area and discovered that he, too, felt peculiar. He then ran down to the village and told his neighbors about the incident. They all hurried back to the spot and had similar reactions. The villagers agreed that they were in the presence of a supernatural agency and decided that a god was living there. They later appointed a priestess to communicate with the god and thus, the Oracle of Delphi became famous.
A more logical and factual theory exists about the origin of natural gas. The theory most generally accepted is that it was formed by a chemical reaction in the earth upon marine organisms buried in the sands ages ago. As the ages passed, these sands settled slowly and were overlaid with other deposits and sediments hundreds of feet deep. The heat and pressure solidified some of the sand into rock formations. Over time, these areas raised and became land surfaces and later still, were submerged under water. This repeated action created layers of deposits. This would explain why, drilling in the same areas, several deposits can be found at different depths.
In 1609, John Baptist van Helmont of Brussels experimented with various fuels and discovered what he referred to as "a wild spirit." "This spirit, up to the present time unknown, not susceptible of being confined to vessels, nor capable of being produced in a visible body, I call by the name of gas." But it would be 200 years later before steps were taken to harness this "wild spirit" for useful purposes.
In 1821, William Hart, an area gunsmith, became interested in natural gas. Hart dug the first natural gas well in America outside a town called Fredonia in New York state. This well was about 27 feet deep. In contrast, wells today go to a depth of over 30,000 feet. In 1858, Hart formed the Fredonia Gas Light Company, the nation's first natural gas company.
Progress in the development of gas was slow, primarily because of the superstitions which surrounded it. It was not until the late 18th century that William Murdock devoted himself to the task of producing gas from coal on a scale that would make possible its use for lighting. He lighted his own home in 1792 and in 1798, lighted the factory of Boulton, Watt & Company, manufacturers of steam engines. Murdock's achievements have earned him the title of "father of the gas industry."
By 1816, Baltimore was the first city in the United States to light its streets with gas. More cities followed Baltimore's lead and many public buildings were lighted in the same manner. Still, progress continued to move slowly. As late as 1855, Pennsylvania has ordinances prohibiting the use of natural gas. Fears that the earth was saturated with natural gas to such an extent that, should a fire occur, destruction of the entire community and great loss of life would result. In that year, Robert von Bunsen invented the blue flame gas burner, which is still in use today and bears his name.
It was about the year 1859 when gas started to be used to any extent for cooking in the United States, primarily on stoves imported from England.
Today, natural gas is used for cooking, heating, air-conditioning, and clothes dryers, as well as fireplaces and lighting with gas lamps for decorative purposes.