George Washington Discovers Methane 1873

After the close of the revolutionary war in 1873, George Washington, with an abundance of time on his hands, established a domicile in a farmhouse just outside of Princeton, New Jersey. His duties with Congress, although ongoing, were now winding down and he set forth a new endeavor, delving into the world of science.

He wrote a letter to his old friend Thomas Paine and invited him to come to his Rocky Hill, New Jersey offices as he had discovered a mystery, and required help to examine the strange circumstances enshrouded in how a river could catch fire. Even a slight bout with scarlet fever could not deter Paine from answering his friend's call for this highly odd scientific development. What resulted from a friendly argument between Washington and Paine was an adventure that would set the course of history on a new bearing.The two men, along with a small group of their dedicated soldiers, traveled to a mysterious nearby creek where they boarded a small boat in search of an explanation. What they found was contained in the mud at the bottom of the river. It was not fully known at the time but something called bituminous matter, moreover, bituminous limestone was lurking within the muddy river bottom. When stirred up by the men in the boat, Washington noted that something odd had begun to happen.

Bubbles began rising to the surface from the mud as it was disturbed. He quickly took out a slight roll of cartridge paper, rolled it up, and while leaning over the scow, ignited the paper a few inches from the surface. To his amazement, the surface of the water did indeed ignite as the flames jumped from his flaming parchment to the surface of the river. The river was alight with flames and he had to know why. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he had uncovered a new power source later called Methane. (Library, 1783)

As interesting as this was to our first president, he may not have been given the credit for actually discovering natural gas or methane. Two names rise above all others regarding the early findings in the story of methane. Humphry Davy who was a chemist from Cornwall, England around 1810 comes to light as well as the new well know Michael Faraday. It appears that in those first days of discovery, Davy did witness an odd solid material that led to the theory of chlorine atoms, encased in ice crystals.

Then, in 1823, Faraday wrote a report including this strange new substance he called chlorine clathrate hydrate thereby claiming credit for the discovery. Although the discovery of other clathrates having to do with another compound then called a “guest compound” was found, they remained a mere curiosity. Davy did go on to become an assistant to Faraday however the real credit for the findings of methane appears to be blurred by history.

So while it is highly likely that Davy initially observed what eventually became methane, Faraday, as it seems, did get the credit. Subsequent discoveries on the subject of methane were found in both the 1930s as well as in the 1960s. In the 1930s, miners working with the mysterious substance logged complaints saying they were faced with “an ice-like material” which they said was blocking their pipelines when the weather became very cold.

Eventually, those learned in such things determined that this material was not pure ice, but ice wrapped around methane. Further research was quickly done that went into the books as to how methane was developed in the early days. Then, in the 1960s, scientists found that methane hydrate, or what we know as solid natural gas was found in the Messoyakha region of western Siberia.

This was the turning point in the history of natural gas hydrates as the dawn of a new era was upon the modern world. In the end, the entirety of this story led the US Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct vast research from 1982 and 1992, after which they found that methane hydrate deposits could be found in offshore sediments as well. At this point in history, the once curiosity that became an industrial nuisance appeared as a highly relevant resource as we know it to be today. (Harris, 2009)