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Cardboard Apps


In this episode, Dan Holohan reflects on a time when apps were cardboard and contractors were delighted by them.


Episode Transcript

These days, I don’t know many people in this business who don’t have all the world’s knowledge in their pocket. They’re forever checking their smartphones for this and that. Just the other day, someone asked me if I knew of a good app for sizing natural gas lines. I wondered why the guy just didn’t use a paper version for that. Remember? We used to have these charts.

We still do, in fact. But then I realized that paper is so 20th Century.

Not that I’m trying to get in touch with my inner fogie here, or go all Luddite on you. I love today’s technology as much as anyone, but I still keep a dusty copy of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary on the shelf over my desk. Sure, I haven’t opened it in years because it’s much easier and faster for me to Google a word I need to check, but that book has such a nice maroon color, and it smells like knowledge, so I’m keeping it.

I work in a room that’s filled with the dead. Their books, some dating to the early-1800s, look down on me. I often open them to get reacquainted with their writers. Those people are remarkably patient with me. They never ask for attention. They just stand side-by-side and wait until I need them, and they are always there for me.

Over there in my three filing cabinets, there are handwritten and typed notes written by the dead. Much of those notes have to do with job proposals and tricks of the trade. There is also a lot of old product literature in those cabinets and the photos in that literature are of a time long gone, but when I sometimes see the machines in those catalogs still operating in the field.

I always smile. I live in a heating museum.

One of those folders in the cabinet on the left contains a bunch of what I think of as cardboard apps. These are the sizing calculators the Dead Men carried in their pockets when telephones still had slots for nickels.

Take, for instance, this 5-1/4” round, Hot-Water-Capacity Calculator from John Wood. They note under their name that they’ve been around since 1867. How about that?

The calculator has three sections and these instructions:

  1. Locate on the outer dial your laundry equipment.
  2. Set opposite the laundry equipment, the kitchen equipment you have.
  3. Set the number of people in your family opposite the number of baths.
  4. Read gallons opposite the Personal Factor. This is for the peak hot-water requirement of the family. To determine the size heater you require, see the table on back of calculator.

That’s simple, but it only allows me to have five people in the family, which made me wonder because back when contractors were using this cardboard app, people probably had more kids than they do today, so I’ll set that one aside and look at this other cardboard app. This one is from A.O. Smith. A.O. allows for eight people in the family (which may be the key to their success). Their cardboard app, which is, when folded, exactly the size of my iPhone, tells me to:

  1. Select the appliance and bath column for your home.
  2. Match the Dot to that column.
  3. Read the gallons required for the number of people in your family.

Isn’t that easy? And I don’t have to plug in either of these or get within range of WiFi to use them.

In 1959, General Industrial Co. of Chicago, Illinois (phone number LOngbeach 1-5871) gave away a four-inch round, honest-to-goodness slide rule. It’s not for sizing water heaters. It’s just a slide rule and I’ll bet if you handed this to a teenager that kid wouldn’t be able to tell you what it is, even though it says Slide Rule right up there on the front. Huh?

Or how about this one from Waterfilm Boilers, Inc. of Jersey City, NJ? It was 1953 and they were selling Koven Trimrad baseboard radiators. They gave away a plastic-and-cardboard app that fit in your pocket. It calculated heat loss and sized the baseboard. All you needed to do was dial in the cubic contents of the room, the square footage of glass, and the square footage of the exposed walls. No questions asked about what was inside the walls, or what sort of glass made up those windows. They probably wanted to make life very simple for the contractors, which may be why you’ve never heard of them.

American Standard also had a heating calculator (it, too, arrived in 1954, a big year for cardboard apps). Theirs was better than the one from Waterfilm Boilers because you had to slide to let the cardboard app know whether the building had single- or double-glass windows, and you had to consider infiltration. Once you slid all of that into place, you’d select both your boiler (there are five choices!) and your Heatrim baseboard radiators. This one is about the size of two pieces of white bread, side by side. Nice.

In 1956, American Standard kicked it up a notch with their Residential Comfort-Conditioning Calculator. Now consider how many houses were going up in 1956 when all those babies were booming. This cardboard app goes into much more detail when figuring the heat loss. It’s still the size of the white bread, but now they want to know a lot more details about construction, which makes sense since the contractor was probably using this one for new homes rather than old homes.

Crane, not to be outdone, offered a cardboard app (two-slice-white-bread size) that asked questions similar to American Standard’s and then came up with how many feet of their cast-iron baseboard you’d need to use.

I figure this one got used less often since we both know that the way baseboard radiators really gets sized is to measure the walls and then install the baseboard to fit along those walls.

And then, of course, there was Bell & Gossett’s System Syzer, credited to my teacher, the late, great Gil Carlson. When I was working with the contractors in New York City and Long Island, I would not leave home without that delicious, dessert-plate-sized, plastic app. I used it constantly and now I’ve learned that B&G has replaced Gil’s Wheel with an electronic app, and that’s nice, but I’m keeping my old one because it works just fine and comes with many sweet memories.

And as each of these cardboard- and plastic apps showed up, I’m sure contractors were thrilled. Heck, I still smile every time I look at them. I think about how many hands must have touched these things before they came to me, how many jobs they helped size, and how many problems they helped solve. And how much time they saved.

And not one of them needed a battery.

Did you like that tale? I hope so, and if you did, please share it with your friends. Thanks for spending some time with me. I appreciate you!

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