Black history month is one of Canada’s most important months of the year. It is a way of remembering and honouring the legacy of important African Americans. It’s a month where we take a moment in our busy lives to remember the great pioneers that fought hard for equal rights and opportunities for their community. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, and Harriet Tubman are some of the most widely celebrated names. But let me introduce you to an African American inventor, you may not have heard of. Without her, you would be using a fire-pit to stay warm!
This inventor was born in the small town of Morristown, New Jersey in 1895. This genius modernized the furnaces we use every day to keep us warm during the harsh winters. This inventor is none other than Alice H. Parker! Parker attended classes at Howard University Academy in Washington, D.C. The academy was a high school connected to Howard University, and in 1910, Parker earned a certificate with honours from the Academy, which was a feat for a woman and an African American at the time.
Alice H. Parker was an African American inventor famous for her patented system of central heating using natural gas. Her design allowed cool air to be drawn into the furnace, then conveyed through a heat exchanger that delivered warm air through the ducts to individual rooms in a house. The concept of central heating was around before Parker, but hers was unique as she chose natural gas over coal or wood as its fuel, which increased efficiency. Her idea was also unique as it contained individually controlled air ducts to transfer heat to different parts of the building—a new idea that hadn’t been introduced before! This was convenient as well because it meant people didn’t have to go outside to buy or chop wood for fuel. She got the inspiration for her design because she felt the fireplace was not effective enough in warming her home through the cold New Jersey winters.
Parker filed for a patent in 1919 and received a patent number on December 23, 1919. Parker filing a patent was a huge milestone because she was an African American woman in the early 1900s and her filing for a patent preceded both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation movement. At this time, African American women had limited opportunities and Parker receiving a patent for her invention during that time was a very outstanding achievement. This crossed barriers for women and African Americans and encouraged them to overcome difficulties that were placed against them! She was an outstanding woman that not only went against the odds but was also rewarded for it.
Unfortunately, Parker’s idea was never implemented due to safety concerns over the regulation of heat flow, but it was a steppingstone and was the precursor to many modern heating systems. With her idea and modifications to safety concerns, it modernized the furnaces we see today, including features such as thermostats, zone heating, and forced air furnaces. Parker is the reason why we can sit comfortably at home in our harsh Canadian winters that can reach -30 degrees Celsius and still be warm.
Since it’s February, the official month of black history month, and winter, I think today of all days (and every other day too!) is a good time to reflect on how Parker contributed to our comfort and appreciate the hard work she put in for us.