Frickel, S. and Tollefson, J. “Before Spindletop: New Computational Methods for Excavating America’s Forgotten Fossil Fuel Industry”
From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, many homes, institutions, and factories in the United States, Canada, Australia and much of Europe relied on gas produced from coal to light lamps and kitchen stoves. The manufactured gas industry sparked a revolution in urban form and function, while at the same time producing vast quantities of hazardous waste with minimal regulation. Today, the remains of former “coal gas” production, distribution and disposal sites number in the tens of thousands, mostly hidden by decades of urban change and industrial churning. This paper introduces the manufactured gas industry as a subject ripe for environmental sociological analysis. We summarize the industry’s historical development and decline in the United States, assess primary sources of historical data, and introduce a new computational method for identifying many previously unidentified gasworks sites from historical fire insurance maps. A pilot study centered in Providence, Rhode Island illustrates the efficacy of our approach for recovering historical information about a largely forgotten fossil fuel industry that, we argue, holds great promise as a testbed for a wide range of environmental social theory.