Picture this. The year is 1919. The world is still recovering from the First World War and people are picking up the pieces of their lives. Gender and racial discrimination are rife and women and people of color are making do with what they can get. Alice Parker is a 24-year-old African American woman. By this statement alone, you can already guess that the odds are stacked against her. But instead of resigning to her fate, Alice comes up with an idea that continues to warm our hearts and homes to date. Today, more than 100 years after her invention, we look back at this amazing woman and her brainchild.
Who is Alice Parker?
Alice H. Parker was born in Morristown in New Jersey. She grew up here. Though much is not known about her early childhood, you can probably picture her running around, building snowmen, and doing other things children her age were doing. Going about her life oblivious of the impact that she was about to have not only in the United States but the world as a whole. Alice was already making strides even before her invention as she was one of the few African-American women who made it to university. Mind you, this was at a time when women were not encouraged to go out there and get what was theirs. Her ability to receive a college education and graduate with honors was not a small feat. She did it anyway, paving the way for more young women to aim for bigger things for themselves.
It said that ideas are everywhere you look and if you want to come up with an exciting innovation, you need to solve a current problem. That is exactly what Alice did. Let’s go back to our walk down memory lane. You probably know that in the past, what we enjoy today as modern conveniences were not available a century ago. People did not have HVAC systems and they worked with coal, wood, and other natural resources. You can even picture what it was like to be at home during winter. People would head out, collect some firewood, get back in the house, place the wood in the fireplace and rub their hands together as they waited for the heat to spread to other rooms. I’d like to imagine that Alice was warming her hands when the idea struck her to come up with a more efficient way of heating homes.
Alice felt that the current heating systems were not good enough (hence the current problem) and she sought a way to deal with this (the solution/the innovation). After thinking about what would work better, she came up with the concept of using natural gas to power heating furnaces. Her design allowed the furnace to draw in cool air, heat it and deliver it to other rooms as warm air through ducts. At the time of her invention, central heating systems existed. However, they relied on coal or wood as the fuel. Alice decided to use natural gas as the alternative.
What was unique about her invention?
For starters, it enabled homes to conserve energy. Secondly, people no longer had to head out and collect firewood in the cold. You can imagine how hard it was to head out to the snow in search of wood to keep warm when the weather got chilly. Back then, people did not have as many conveniences as we do now and this trip back and forth would have been very taxing to their bodies. Even now, you probably would not fancy the idea of being out in the cold. Thirdly, she eliminated the risk of houses catching fire. You may wonder how this is the case. But think about it. You’re cold, and you want to ensure that your loved ones remain warm through the cold winter nights. The only way to get warm air to their rooms is to leave the furnace on with wood burning through the night. The chances that the fire can spread from the furnace and catch other items are quite high. People did not have much of a choice and had to work with this risk almost every night during winter. And here Alice was, offering a better alternative!
And so it was that on December 23, 1919, Alice filed a patent for her amazing idea. What a unique Christmas gift not only to herself but to the whole world. While her idea did not get adopted exactly as she wanted, it created a basis on which other inventors built on to create the modern gas furnace models you see today. By 1935, scientists had borrowed from her idea and created forced convection wall heaters that paved the way for the thermostat and forced air furnace models we have today. Without Alice, we would be heating our homes in very different ways. It thus suffices to say that she does not get as much credit as she deserves.
It gets even more interesting. Prior to her innovation, Alice had no experience with furnaces. Her idea stemmed from the fact that natural gas was more flexible and safer compared to wood and coal. It goes to show that a good idea can come from anybody and at any time regardless of their background.
Alice made her mark at a time when civil rights and women’s rights movements were yet to gain momentum. Even in these tumultuous times, she found a way to push through the barriers and gift the world with the gift that keeps on giving. Truly, she was a revolutionary.