Alice Parker: Trailblazer in Space Heating

In the early 20th century, fireplaces were not very efficient at keeping homes warm. Frustrated with this situation, a young woman named Alice H. Parker decided to design a new heating system. The design she eventually patented is considered the first heating system with independently controlled units and fueled by natural gas.

Creating a new comfort zone

By Parker’s time, thousands of patents had been issued for heating stoves and furnaces, but hers may have been the first using a zone control approach. This was a fine achievement for any inventor, but all the more remarkable considering that Parker was an African-American woman. When she applied for the patent in July 1918, few opportunities were open to women of color. Women didn’t even have the right to vote!

It took more than a year to earn the patent, which was finally granted in December 1919. It read: “To provide a comparatively simple, reliable and efficient heating furnace in which gas is employed for the fuel, whereby economy of labor and fuel cost is effected and greater flexibility in the operation obtained.”

Parker’s heating furnace had several unique features:

  • Cool air was drawn into the furnace and then sent through a heat exchanger.
  • Warm air was delivered throughout the home via air ducts.
  • A multiple, individually controlled burner system used natural gas.
  • The temperature could be adjusted in different areas of the building.

According to the patent, each combustion chamber contained a gas burner connected to a gas manifold with a pipe. A regulating valve was operated using pull chains from a point remote from the furnace. A pilot burner lighted the main burner as soon as the gas was turned on. Baffle plates at the bottom of each unit arranged alternately at opposite sides produced more effective heating.

Discovering a little-known inventor

Not much is known about Alice Parker’s life. She lived in Morristown, New Jersey, when she submitted her patent. She may have attended classes at the Howard University Academy in Washington D.C., a high school connected to Howard University. The academy was established to prepare students for attending Howard’s College of Liberal Arts.

Parker is said to have earned a certificate with honors from the academy, another remarkable achievement for an African-American woman at that time. There is little additional information available about her education or career, except for a March 1920 announcement in a Seattle paper, Cayton’s Weekly, that she had been issued the patent.

Parker’s invention could be considered the precursor of the forced-air central heating systems used today. She was finally recognized for her invention almost a century later. In 2014, the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce named Parker one of the state’s 25 greatest innovators — one of only five women to make the list.