When it gets cold outside, we turn on our furnaces without any thought. However, the use of a central heating source is actually quite recent. For many years, heat sources were small and limited. They could only provide heat to one portion of the house at a time. But, in 1919, an African-American woman created a solution to this problem. Alice H. Parker created drawings of a series of furnaces that had vents that connected to each room. These vents could be adjusted to control the heat flow into each room. To our modern minds, perhaps this idea seems simple and logical. However, this idea truly was revolutionary. For a society that had depended on the heat of a fireplace or stove in every room, the chance to have one source of heat that would be spread throughout the home was revolutionary. Furthermore, Parker herself was a breakthrough. She had already broke through the education barrier by attending and graduating from Howard University. She graduated with honor when very few African-Americans were college educated. As a woman, it was even more uncommon for her to have graduated from college. Now, she made a breakthrough in heating. Up until that time, no one had thought of using natural gas to heat homes. Homes were still primarily heated using wood. On December 23, 1919, that all changed. Parker was granted a patent for her gas furnace design. Unfortunately, her patented plan was not able to be put into production due to safety hazards. Despite the ultimate failure of Parker’s design, she still provided a crucial stepping stone for the improvement of heating American homes. Without her idea, usable gas furnaces would not have arrived on the scene as quickly as they did. Today, it is hard to imagine not having central heating and being able to dress like the tropics in the cold of winter in our houses. This reality was made possible by a early 20th century African-American woman who broke down barriers.
Parker’s patent sketches of a gas furnace.