Alice H. Parker (1895 – 1920)[1] was an African-American inventor who was active in the early 1900s. She is most widely recognized for her patent filed for a gas furnace, which served as the basis for the development of modern heating systems in use today.

 

Alice H. Parker (1895 – 1920)[1] was an African-American inventor who was active in the early 1900s. She is most widely recognized for her patent filed for a gas furnace, which served as the basis for the development of modern heating systems in use today.

Alice H. Parker
Born1895
Died1920
NationalityAfrican American
OccupationInventor
Known forHeating Furnace

Early life

Alice H. Parker was born in 1895 in Morristown, New Jersey, where she grew up some of her life.[2][3] Parker was a highly educated woman who graduated with honors in 1910 from Howard University Academy, a historically African-American university that accepted both male and female students since its founding in November 1866, shortly after the Civil War.[4] According to census data, Parker worked as a cook in the kitchen in Morristown, NJ and lived with her husband, who was a butler. Despite her revolutionary impact on today's modern heating system, there is almost no information recorded on her personal life. Although the specific date of her death is unknown, it is thought she died in 1920 due to a fire or heat stroke.[citation needed]

Much of the information regarding Parker’s early life and education history is unknown and debated due to the lack of records that were maintained detailing her life. Parker is widely recorded as being born in 1895 in Morristown, New Jersey[2][3] However, recent investigations on Parker’s early life have uncovered contradicting evidence that suggests her year of birth being 1885, including the 1920 patent for a gas furnace filed under her name. Parker graduated with honors from Howard University in 1910, a notable achievement considering the educational opportunities presented to members of the minority during the time period.

In 2022, an investigation by Audrey Henderson of the Energy News Network found that a photo commonly said to be of Parker is actually of an unrelated white woman born five years after Parker's furnace patent was issued.[5]

Invention

At the time, central gas heating had yet to be developed, so people relied on burning coal or wood as their main source of heating. While furnaces and the concept of central heating have been around since the Roman Empire, the science hardly advanced in the years that followed, and the heating methods utilized by the end of the nineteenth century were still relatively primitive.

Parker felt that the fireplace alone was not enough to keep her and her home warm during the cold New Jersey winter, and went on to design the first gas furnace that was powered by natural gas and the first heating system to contain individually controlled air ducts that distributed heat evenly throughout the building. In more technical terms, Parker's heating system used independently controlled burner units that drew in cold air and conveyed the heat through a heat exchanger. This air was then fed into individual ducts to control the amount of heat in different areas.[6][2] What made her invention particularly unique, was that it was a form of "zone heating" where temperature can be moderated in different parts of a building.[7][8][9]

Although the invention had massive positive impacts, it also came with a few downsides. Her design posed a few health and safety risks as it made certain appliances like the oven more flammable and unsafe to touch. The regulation of the heat flow also posed a few security risks. On the other hand, Parkers invention also decreased the risk of house or building fires that heating units posed by eliminating the need to leave a burning fireplace on throughout the night. With her idea for a furnace used with modifications to eliminate safety concerns, it inspired and led the way to features such as thermostats, zone heating and forced air furnaces, which are common features of modern central heating. Additionally, by using natural gas, it heated homes much more efficiently than wood or coal counterparts (which were more time consuming and expensive). Parker's invention was further improved in 1935 by scientists who created forced convection wall heaters that use a coal furnace, electric fan, and ductwork throughout a home. Nowadays, homes utilize thermostats and forced air furnaces which can be attributed to Parker's design and invention of the central heating furnace.[9][10][3] Her filing of the patent precedes both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Liberation Movement, which made her accomplishments especially impressive, since black women of her generation faced many systematic barriers.[11]

Parker’s patent for her gas furnace stemmed from her desire to improve household heating solutions available at the time. Homeowners at the time largely relied on fireplaces requiring the usage of wood or coal, and these fireplaces were ineffective in heating entire homes for the lengthy winters of Northeastern United States. While the usage of natural gas for heating purposes was not a newfound idea at the time, as such concept had been around since the Roman Empire and natural gas heating systems were used to heat water systems in certain parts of the United States before Parker’s invention, her patent was the first to employ this concept for heating homes and offices. Parker’s invention demonstrated a new and unique heating system that utilized air ducts to control the amount of heating a specific part would receive–a system of “zone heating” that was nonexistent at the time. Parker’s invention would have hopefully provided a safer method for household heating, replacing the traditional fireplaces which have always been a fire hazard especially in a time period with less protective technology, and an avoidance for homeowners to stock up on wood and coal providing savings in cost and house space.

Legacy

In 2019, the National Society of Black Physicists honored Parker as an "African American inventor famous for her patented system of central heating using natural gas." It called her invention a "revolutionary idea" for the 1920s, "that conserved energy and paved the way for the central heating systems".[12] The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce established the Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Awards to honor women who use their "talent, hard work and ‘outside-the-box’ thinking to create economic opportunities and help make New Jersey a better place to live and work."[13][14]

Parker’s patent for her gas furnace, although groundbreaking, was never chosen to enter full-fledged production and usage. This was mainly due to the safety concerns behind her design, as the technology available at the time did not possess the capability to regulate the heat flow as outlined in Parker’s invention. However, Parker’s patent has served as a basis for the development of heating systems throughout the 20th century and today. Parker’s design, which allows for an individual to control the heating received for each room in a house, is recognizable in the zonal heating system, and especially the “smart home” technology, that is used by nearly all households in the current century.

Parker’s legacy lives on numerous awards and grants, and most noticeably in the annual Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Award that is given out by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce to celebrate outstanding women innovators in Parker’s home state. However, the details regarding her later years are as unknown as the details available for her early life. The specific date for her death, along with the cause, is largely unknown with the information currently available. Most shockingly, the photo that has long been associated with Parker was proven to be a photo of a completely unrelated British woman born five years after the filing of Parker’s patent.

References

  1. ^ "Breaking Walls". The Daily Telegraph. October 27, 2018. p. 2. ISSN 0307-1235. ProQuest 2125559167.
  2. ^ a b c Gibbs, C. R. (1995). Black Inventors: From Africa to America. Three Dimensional Publications. p. 208. ISBN 9781877835872. OCLC 1028870546.
  3. ^ a b c Turner, Doreen (November 22, 2019). "The Mother of Modern Heating: A Tribute to Alice H. Parker". Robaire Company, Inc. Archived from the original on February 19, 2021. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
  4. ^ "Industry". The Crisis. 19 (4): 211. February 1920.
  5. ^ Henderson, Audrey (February 28, 2022). "What we know about Alice Parker, a 'hidden figure' in modern heating". Energy News Network.
  6. ^ Sluby, Patricia Carter (2004). The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 133. ISBN 978-0-275-96674-4.
  7. ^ US 1325905, Parker, Alice H., "Heating-furnace", published 1919-12-23 
  8. ^ Webster, Raymond B. (1999). African American Firsts in Science & Technology. Detroit: Gale Group. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-7876-3876-4. OCLC 41238505.
  9. ^ a b "Women's History Month: Alice Parker's Gas Furnace Patent". HeatTreatToday. March 16, 2018. Archived from the original on December 8, 2021. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
  10. ^ "Alice H. Parker". New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on February 2, 2021. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
  11. ^ Weber, Erika (April 1, 2018). "ALICE H. PARKER (1895-?)". BlackPast. Archived from the original on March 5, 2019. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
  12. ^ "Alice H. Parker". The National Society of Black Physicists. Retrieved November 18, 2020.
  13. ^ "Three Women Who Embody the Best of Outside-the-Box Thinking Will Receive the N.J. Chamber's 'Women Leaders in Innovation' Award". Insider New Jersey. November 6, 2020. Retrieved November 18, 2020.
  14. ^ "NJ Chamber to Honor 3 Women Leaders in Innovation". New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved November 18, 2020.

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