Discovery of Calcium Carbide Process

A portrait of James T. Morehead held by the N.C. Museum of History

A portrait of James T. Morehead held by the N.C. Museum of History

On May 2, 1892, in Spray (now Eden), Canadian chemist Thomas L. Willson accidentally produced calcium carbide and acetylene with an electric-arc furnace. In August, Willson applied for a patent for the new process.

By 1897, acetylene was competing with electricity in providing lighting, especially in rural areas and those places where gasoline was unavailable. Portable acetylene generators provided light to mines, bicycles, automobiles and railroads. Willson developed the acetylene gas buoy as a maritime navigational aid that was used worldwide. Oxygen was also combined with acetylene to allow for faster welding and cutting of metals.

In August 1894, Willson and business partner James Turner Morehead sold the patents for utilizing calcium and acetylene in lighting to the Electrogas Company but kept the manufacturing rights. That same month, Morehead, using borrowed money, completed the first commercial calcium carbide plant by expanding the Spray operation. The plant burned in 1896. Morehead later built a larger plant in Virginia. A factory in West Virginia made ferro-alloys using methods developed at Spray. Morehead eventually sold the rights to the Union Carbide Company, which was formed in 1898. That company eventually became Union Carbide Corporation. It was acquired by Dow Chemical in 2001.

Read more about North Carolina inventions on NCpedia.

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