As the northeast region quickly cools down to uncomfortably low temperatures, most of us are fortunate enough to be blessed with the comfort and convenience of home heating, giving us a warm escape from the harsh winter season any time we’re indoors. But who do we have to thank for this modern miracle besides some sort of higher being? As it turns out, there is one individual who is chiefly responsible for leading us to the temperate promised land in which we currently reside. This unsung hero’s name was Alice H. Parker, and by all accounts she is the mother of modern heating.
Despite extensive research, there is very little information to be found about Parker’s life and personal history, as she was given little to no recognition for her enormous contributions to technology field in her own time. However, we’d like to share what we were able to find in order to honor her legacy in some small way as we continue to benefit from said contributions.
As far as what little background info there is, Alice H. Parker was born in either 1885 or 1895 in Morristown, New Jersey, where she apparently lived for most of her life. At one point, Parker attended Howard University Academy in Washington, D.C. (an affiliate school of Howard University), where she was granted honors upon graduating in 1910. As an educated black woman prior to both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement, this achievement would not be the last groundbreaking moment of her life.
While furnaces and the concept of central heating have been around since the Roman Empire, the science hardly advanced in the millenia that followed, and the heating methods being employed by the end of the nineteenth century were still relatively primitive compared to today.
At the turn of the twentieth century, despite a booming global technological revolution, the average home was still heated by furnaces that got their heat from coal or wood burning fireplaces. This made staying warm an inefficient, expensive, time-consuming and dangerous luxury, as homeowners needed to constantly stock their furnaces, which meant you were either constantly buying coal if you could afford it, or constantly procuring and chopping your own firewood. To make matters worse, staying warm at night came at the risk of burning your house down every time you went to sleep with a lit fire burning.
Alice H. Parker aimed to eliminate the hazard and inconvenience of home heating at the time, and she went about doing so by quite literally re-inventing it. While her personal and professional life after 1910 is somewhat of a mystery, we can assume she spent a significant portion of it working on her invention around the same time that WWI was occurring. On December 23, 1919, Parker reappears on public record with another groundbreaking achievement when she is granted a patent for her natural gas run central home heating furnace.
Parker’s new design featured one centrally located heat source with a multi-burner system that provided heat to the rest of the home using pipes and air vents. What made Parker’s design revolutionary, however, is the fact that it ran on natural gas. This allowed the system to heat the home much more effectively and efficiently, not to mention eliminating the need for burning coal or wood. This huge leap in home heating would forever change the way we stay warm. In addition to running on natural gas, Parker’s design also allowed homeowners to moderate the temperature in different rooms, a feature that would inspire the invention of zone heating and the thermostat. All in all, Parker’s invention laid the groundwork for the science of home heating to advance as far as it did in the century that followed.
Tragically, Parker never received due credit for her unprecedented invention, and her exact design was never sold, but rather copied and modified by others in the years that followed. It’s unclear if Parker ever saw any personal benefits from her patent, despite it being the obvious inspiration of later designs that were implemented for widespread commercial and residential use. On top of it all, Parker was a black female inventor at a time when such a designation was virtually unheard of, making her a pioneer in an even larger sense.
Next month marks the 100th anniversary of Alice H. Parker’s revolutionary patent. While one article isn’t exactly due payment for a century’s worth of warmth and comfort, we’re proud to share her remarkable story in celebration of her legacy. So, when you’re sitting in your house all warm and cozy this winter, remember to thank Alice (and your HVAC tech)!