Have you ever had the heat in your home go out in the dead of winter? It’s alarming just how cold the inside of a well-insulated home can get. If the repairman can’t come immediately, many of us leave and stay somewhere else until our furnace is fixed.
But consider what families faced in centuries past when today’s common luxury of central heat didn’t exist and was not even considered possible. Cold was a constant problem, a force that needed to be slayed every day and night. People as innovative and well-to-do as Thomas Jefferson suffered from it. He complained once that he had to stop writing one evening because his ink had frozen in the inkwell.
While there have long been many ingenious innovations allowing us to better heat our living spaces, being able to heat one’s entire house or office space from one heat source has been among the greatest. If you were to consider the individual who made perhaps the largest contributions to the development of central heat, how many of you would guess it was a relatively young woman with little experience in engineering? How many would guess she was an African-American woman? Well that is precisely the fact of the matter.
Alice H. Parker from Morristown, New Jersey, holds the patent for the first natural gas whole-house furnace, awarded to her in 1919, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. That fact that it utilized clean natural gas rather than messy coal or wood that had to regularly be replenished was a major step forward. Also, her invention was the first to use a system for regulating heat of different temperatures to specific rooms. Parker’s actual U.S. Patent No. 1,325,905 can be seen here. Of course, it is quite a sophisticated piece of technology, and the draftsman’s schematic and her detailed explanation of how each part works is impressive.
Her patent describes the invention as a “reliable and efficient heating furnace in which gas is employed for the fuel, whereby economy of labor and fuel cost is effected…” and is “independently controlled … [with] individual hot air ducts leading to different parts of the building.” This means, as she puts it, “the temperature can be regulated to a nicety” based on the inhabitant’s individual need and desire.
Unfortunately, Parker’s design was never used in houses or offices, because certain safety concerns were never completely controlled for. But her contribution moved the technology of one-source, central gas heat forward in remarkable ways.
Curiously, the historical record knows very little of Ms. Parker. Essentially it is this. She was born in 1895 and lived in New Jersey. She attended a special, accelerated high school program at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and graduated with honors in 1910. It is not known where or if she attended college. We do not know under what conditions or motivations she created her system. We do not know what became of her in later life or how her invention changed her life, if at all. Did she intend to live in obscurity? We just don’t know. She died in 1983 and is buried outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. Thankfully, though, she is not totally forgotten. The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce awards the coveted Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Award to women who are making important leadership contributions in the Garden State.
Even though the story of her life is a quiet one, the significant thumbprint this young African-American woman left on the very important world of the comfort of our homes has clearly had profound consequences. You are no doubt enjoying the fruits of her innovative labor as you read this very article. Thank Alice for that gift.