It’s relatively easy to find biographical information about Dave Lennox and details about his contributions to home heating systems. Likewise, we can investigate the life and genius of Willis Carrier as well as his work with air conditioning. What is not easy, is finding out about the genius who invented the way to utilize natural gas as a method to provide central heating.
The search for information about Alice H. Parker and details about how and what she did in order to come up with her invention are sketchy at best. I’m not the only person to come up with dead ends regarding this amazing woman. The most that anyone can come up with is the same very brief biographical note and the same patent drawings of the furnace design.
I wish more data had been kept about her family background, education major, and career. She was certainly a pioneer in many respects. Parker was one of the few well-educated women of her time. To top it off, she was one of the very few African American women to attend college in the early part of the 20th century. Her contributions should be noteworthy, famous milestones for both the Women’s Rights and the African American rights movements.
The few sources I could locate about her indicate that Alice H. Parker was born and raised in Morristown, New Jersey. She attended classes at Howard University and achieved high grades. Archivists have not yet found any further information about the inventor. We do not know how long she lived in Morristown, New Jersey, if she moved somewhere else. It’s unknown if she married, had a family, or if she continued her career or how else she may have supported herself.
The Northern New Jersey History and Genealogy Center can only find the brief life file about the woman with the attached copy of her patent that was filed on December 23, 1919. There is a short mention of Parker’s patent in Raymond Webster’s book African American Firsts in Science and Technology. As well as very short mentions on a few websites.
In my view, this lack of information about Parker is not only frustrating, but shows a lack of respect for the accomplishments of women and especially black women in the not so distant past. Why else would anyone neglect to record the details of the life of someone so smart and worthy of recognition? Parker was a woman who did something that women, especially black women, were not supposed to do in those days.
The concept of central heating goes back as far as the Roman Empire and perhaps ancient Greece, but those were rudimentary designs. By the 1700s, there were a few systems that used steam heated radiators to distribute warmth. They used wood or coal to heat the water. Thousands of patents had been issued in various countries for various stoves and heaters designed expressly for space heating.
However, Parker’s particular design allowed for a type of furnace, similar to those commonly used today. Aside from being the first to use natural gas as the fuel, her design enabled cool air from a compartment to be drawn into the furnace. That air was then conveyed through a heat exchanger which was then delivered through ducts to the individual rooms of a house. Since there were no electric blowers, warmth was circulated by the radiant properties of heat and its tendency to flow upwards.
This landmark invention became the start of a whole new way of space heating for homes and businesses. Through the years, various designers and companies have built on Parker’s invention to improve it and make it more efficient. If you have a natural gas powered forced air furnace in your home, remember that it first came about through the efforts of a nearly anonymous African American woman in the early 20th century.