Meet the Black Inventors Who Revolutionized Heating and Cooling
February is Black History Month, and one great way to celebrate is to learn more about Black pioneers who broke through barriers and made amazing achievements throughout American history. And although many people don’t realize it, the world of HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) owes a great deal to trailblazers like these. This article offers a brief history of three Black inventors whose ideas and accomplishments have helped make the HVAC industry what it is today!
David Crosthwait – The Professor
Born in Nashville in 1898, David Crosthwait was a mechanical and electrical engineer, inventor, professor, and author. After getting his Bachelor of Science and Master of Engineering degrees at Purdue University, Crosthwait invented new heating systems, boilers, vacuum pumps, temperature regulation devices, and ventilation systems, primarily for use in larger buildings – totaling 39 U.S. patents and 80 international patents. Perhaps most notably, he created heating systems for New York City’s famous Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall.
Upon retiring in 1971, Crosthwait became the first African American elected as a fellow of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). He then taught a course on steam heating theory and control systems at his alma mater, Purdue University, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate one year before his death in 1976.
Alice H. Parker – The Mother of Central Heating
Alice H. Parker was born in Morristown, New Jersey in 1895. She attended Howard University Academy, a high school connected to the predominantly Black university, where she graduated with honors in 1910. In 1919, Parker worked as a cook when she filed a patent for a gas furnace widely considered the precursor to modern central heating systems.
At the time, most homes used fireplaces or stoves that burned wood or coal for heat – so a furnace fueled by more efficient natural gas was a novel idea. Parker’s design also involved several air ducts delivering heat throughout the home. While hers was not the first to implement ductwork, it was unique in its inclusion of multiple burner units that could be independently controlled, allowing for a more even distribution of heat throughout the ducts.
Although Parker is believed to have died in 1920 before her revolutionary gas furnace could see mass production, her work paved the way for today’s central heating systems – to be sure, zone-controlled heating wouldn’t be possible without her innovation.
Lewis Latimer – The Renaissance Man
Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Massachusetts in 1848, the youngest son of George and Rebecca Latimer, who fled from slavery in Virginia to live free in New England. After briefly serving in the U.S. Navy as a teenager, Lewis found employment in a patent law firm, where he quickly rose to the position of head draftsman, thanks to his skill in sketching patent drawings.
From there, Latimer would have an illustrious and extraordinary career working alongside some of the most famous names in history. He co-patented an improved toilet system for railroad cars, helped draft the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and invented a new method for producing carbon lightbulb filaments for the U.S. Electric Lighting Company (Thomas Edison’s rival). He was then invited to work with Edison, where he wrote the book on incandescent electric lighting.
Among Latimer’s many patents is a device called “Apparatus for cooling and disinfecting,” an early version of an air conditioner. This is one of the earliest known systems for improving indoor air quality. In addition to his technical achievements, Latimer played violin and flute, painted, and wrote poetry. Latimer died in 1928, but his prolific body of work continues to impact and inspire innovation across multiple industries.
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