All That History Nonsense

Published: January 4, 2022 - by Dan Holohan


In this episode, Dan Holohan explains why this “history nonsense” gives us the insight we need to keep things in perspective and solve the toughest heating problems.


Episode Transcript

The comment at the bottom of my questionnaire was signed, “Anonymous.” It read, “Stop telling us all about this history nonsense. We don’t need to know none of that old stuff. Just tell us the new stuff, the today stuff.”

I was sitting in a drab hotel room an hour after the last person had left my steam seminar. The comment made me feel a bit melancholy. I’d just spent seven hours ranting about how incredibly exciting heating can be. I thought I’d gotten through to all of them.

“You’re not just replacing parts,” I told them. “You’re traveling through time, for Pete’s sake! Just look at the things you’re working on. Stop for a minute to think about how tough it must have been to invent this stuff. Look at how beautiful it all is, how well it works as a system!”

Sure, I wove a tale or two into the technical aspects of the subject during the course of the day. I was trying to make it all spring to life. The stories I told were about people and accidents, successes and failures. Most of them were funny, in a dark sort of way.

To me, all of life is a story. I can’t wait for the next chapter. But then, I like to keep in mind the part of the story that’s already been told.

History gives you perspective.

A young guy came up to me after this particular class and said, “You know, Dan, I never thought about my job the way you described it. But you’re right, we’re all part of a process, a chain of events. I guess if I’m going to spend a third of my life working in this business, I might as well get excited over it.”

That guy made me smile. But then I have to admit, the comment about “all this history nonsense” from Mr. Anonymous nagged at me. He’s not going to stop me though. No way! These stories are too important, and too fascinating.

Want an example? 

I was reading an old book I picked up on a trip through Pennsylvania a while ago. It cost me 50 cents. This book was called How To Build Up Furnace Efficiency. It was written in 1924 by a fellow named Joseph Hays and it was all about how we, as a nation, had better be careful because we were running out of coal. “We’d best find a new energy source,” he said.

Then I get to this part where he’s talking about a potential alternative and my heart skipped a beat:

“There is enough energy in a pound of coal to run the whole of the United States for a year. All we have to do is to solve the problem of releasing the energy in ways that can be controlled. The Germans are now working on this problem, which means breaking up the atoms of matter, or rather the little ‘solar systems’ of the electrons that make up the atom.”

Doesn’t that make you feel like you’re traveling in a time machine? Doesn’t it make you feel powerful? Consider the timing. It’s 1924. Joseph Hayes tells us the Germans are working on a way to split the atom. It’s 1924… You know what’s going to happen in a few short years. Don’t you wish you could warn him?

This “history nonsense” gives you perspective. I wanted to make Mr. Anonymous understand that, but I failed.

I work with people who work with steam. I love steam heating because it comes with a bit of mystery. Everyone today thinks that only the old-timers understand steam. We shake our heads in envy at the knowledge that died with the old Steam Men.

But did they really understand this stuff? Or were they in the same boat most of us are in when it comes to things like vapor heating.

Once again, this “history nonsense” gives us the insight we need to keep things in perspective.

Listen to Edward Richmond Pierce, writing in 1911:

“In the past six years, there has been a greater gain in the installation of vapor systems for house heating than was made in the entire heating industry in the 30 years following the introduction of steam heating by Mr. Walworth and Mr. Nason.”

Thirty years compressed into six. That gives you an idea of the technology explosion that was taking place at the time. The heating industry has not seen anything like it before - or since. No less than 27 manufacturers arrived on the scene with brand-new types of heating systems. They named these heating systems “Vapor” because they worked at a very low, relatively safe pressure.

Low, safe pressure was a nice change from the way things were in, say, 1892 when steam boilers were exploding at the rate of one every 42 hours. (How could you not find that exciting? The folks back then sure did.) Vapor heating put a stop to many of the steam-boiler explosions, and quickly became very popular.

So 11 years later, thousands of Vapor systems had been installed and the experts were taking a look at what the frantic competition had wrought.

Here’s Alfred G. King writing in 1923: 

“These vapor systems are so varied in character that it is extremely difficult to classify them.”

In other words, “What the heck is that thing?” (Sound familiar?) And Mr. King wasn’t alone in his confusion.

The next time you’re scratching your head and wondering over some ancient cast-iron gizmo in some dark basement, think of what Charles A. Fuller wrote in 1923: 

“There seems to be a general air of mystery surrounding vapor heating. The lack of knowledge and understanding of the general subject exists not only among laymen, but also to a surprising degree among people who are directly connected with this line of work.”

So much for the old-timers' “intuitive brilliance.” I think that when it came to steam they were as confused as most of us are today.

Oh, you can learn so much from this “history nonsense!” Pick up an old book. Talk to an old-timer. Listen to his stories. Get a sense of perspective; it will help you do a better job.

When I did hot-water seminars I’d drag out this three-foot-tall hunk of black iron that looks sort of like a barbell but says right up on top, “Honeywell Number One.”

“Anybody know what this is?” I’d ask.

Blank stares.

Then after suitable tension builds, I’ll say, “Here’s a hint. It’s one of the very first Honeywell controls. In fact it says ‘Honeywell Number One’ right over here. It’s made out of cast-iron and it’s partially filled with mercury. What is it?”

Blank stares. So getting a little bolder, I’ll say, “I’ll give a hundred bucks to anyone in the room who can tell me what this thing is.”

No takers.

“Where did you get that thing?” some crusty old guy in the back row would invariably ask with a twinkle in his eye. “I thought I’d seen it all.”

“My buddy Dave Nelson gave it to me,” I told him. “He took it out of a customer’s house this past winter. And if it weren’t for this ‘history nonsense,’ neither Dave nor I would have known what this thing was.”

“But what the heck is it?” he asked again… And I told him.

Ed Bratton, a steam-heating wizard from Hudson, NY, once took me to an old house and showed me radiators that were installed in 1857. I got so excited the homeowner, a wonderful old country doctor by the name of Tom Cacciopi, gave me one to take home.

This thing is three-feet high, five-feet wide, and a quarter-inch thick. They called it a “mattress radiator” and that’s exactly what it looks like. It’s “quilted” with about 300 rivets. It was invented by Stephen J. Gold in 1854 and became the first commercially successful one-pipe steam radiator in America because it didn’t explode.

It had been in Doc Cacciopi’s house for more than 130 heating seasons that day. But if it wasn’t for the “history nonsense,” none of us would have known how to handle it when the boiler needed to be replaced.

Go get yourself a sense of perspective. Read an old book and you won’t worry so much.

Consider, for instance, Mr. Joseph W. Hays writing in 1924. He has to be one of our industry’s classic warriors. He wrote:

“Liquid fuel is doing its best to help out coal. There would be a lot of comfort in this if we were not within sight of the end of oil. It has been estimated that we have used 40% of our total oil supply. Natural gas is gone, or so nearly gone that it has ceased to be a great fuel factor in the regions of the large industrial centers. Geologists predict the end of our petroleum reserves by 1944.”


I hope you liked that tale, and if you did, please share it with your friends. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you, and I appreciate the time you spend with me. Thanks.