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Central heating: An invention devised by a woman

Did you know that the model behind the creation of central heating was a woman's idea? Many of the inventions that enable us to live comfortably today are based on ideas from the beginning of the 20th century, although many of them stayed in the background, especially those of many female inventors.

With the end of the general pricing for central heating that was approved by Royal Decree in 2020, the 1.7 million households that do not have individual heat distributors are now obliged to have one although there are some exceptions. Taking advantage of the end of this system that became popular decades ago, we would like to take a look at the history of central heating and remember the woman who laid the foundations not only for modern heating but also for smart buildings and the home technology of the future.

 

Alice Parker: An unknown figure

On 23 December 1919, the patent for a new natural gas boiler heating system was registered. This fact, which has had an unprecedented relevance in the development of comfort in the home, becomes even more important when we know that the person behind that patent is Alice H. Parker, of Morristown, New Jersey, a black woman who had graduated from Howard University in Washington D.C., an impressive achievement for the time.

Ms Parker's design used natural gas and although it was not the first heating of this kind, she was a pioneer in including an individualised control system. Her system was never implemented because of safety restrictions together with a number of other issues but there is no doubt that it laid the foundations for modern heating, what today we call comfort in the home and the smartest houses on the market.

Despite her immeasurable contribution to the comfort of today's home, the figure of Ms Parker remains unknown, a sign of the difficulties and little recognition that women received, especially in the first decades of the twentieth century. Ms Parker's contribution to heating systems remains unquestionable 100 years later. Although little is known about her life, it is certain that the trigger for her idea of heating was the harsh winters of New Jersey, when the then common coal or wood fireplaces could do little.

Fortunately, in recent years the legacy of this inventor has been recovered through a number of associations and acknowledgements. This is the case of the Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Awards, given by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce which each year acknowledge the contributions to innovation by women residing in this state.

 

What was Ms Parker's idea?

In the first decades of the 20th century, the use of coal fires and cookers was common in homes and they were an endless source of smoke, ash and soot, with the health problems that this entailed. There were also quite a few safety risks, as chimneys were left burning to combat the fall in temperatures at night and they were usually left unattended. It was not uncommon to use natural gas in some industrial sectors, both for its thermal properties and for the generation of electricity.

However, the innovation that Ms Parker introduced in this regard is that her system would be the first designed to be implemented in residential and office buildings, making them safer and also more hygienic.

Her design not only included the first gas-powered boiler, a number of smaller boilers were combined and connected to a hub that would create hot air through the combustion of natural gas. Ms Parker's innovation is that this hot air would be displaced and distributed throughout the house thanks to ducts that ran through the different rooms. This was really unique, as it would be the main inspiration for the individual heating we use today, with different heating zones and the use of thermostats to regulate the temperature.

 

The Future of Heating

Ms Parker's contributions were essential for human comfort as they enabled us to live comfortably during the harshest winters. It is not only a matter of comfort, but also healthier because by avoiding extreme cold this prevents blood clots, increased blood pressure, and some diseases such as respiratory diseases.

However, there is still a long way to go. As shown by the intention of the new regulations on individual consumption, and in line with European guidelines, it is necessary to provide our homes with more efficient heating. The fact is, the European Union has set a date for gas and oil boilers to expire by 2040.

Therefore, and as Ms Parker did in her day, we should think about the heating of the future; one that is efficient, that has its origin in renewable energies and that is compatible with health and comfort. The systems that meet these requirements include aerothermal heating, underfloor heating, heat pumps and green hydrogen.

But there is no need to start madly looking for an alternative for gas boilers, you can simply choose a tariff that offers you a sustainable option, with natural gas that is neutral in CO2 emissions. Such as the Única Tariff which enables you to enjoy sustainable consumption whilst achieving a neutral balance of emissions.

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