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Gold’s Mattress Radiator

In this episode, Dan Holohan uncovers the fascinating history of Stephen Gold’s mattress radiator, the first safe and successful steam radiator for house heating.


Episode Transcript

On October 3, 1854, an industrious young man from New Haven, Connecticut filed U.S. Patent No. 11,747. Stephen J. Gold called his patent “IMPROVEMENT IN WARMING HOUSES BY STEAM.” Fifty years later, his son, Samuel, would write:

“The first attempt at steam heating of which I have any recollection was in 1853 at Cornwall, Connecticut. My father was making experiments with steam, trying to produce a low-pressure, self-regulating steam heater which would be safe for domestic purposes, his attention being directed to the subject on account of the weak lungs of my mother, who could not endure the Northern climate, and so went South each winter to avoid stove or furnace heat. The popular idea of steam at that time was that it could not be employed for heating purposes unless under the care of an engineer. My father’s aim, therefore, was to show that steam could be rendered safe by means of proper regulating devices.”

What Stephen Gold had done was to invent a small, wrought-iron shell boiler with a cast-iron fire box. He also invented a remarkable radiator. This radiator was amazingly similar to the one the Englishman, James Watt, had invented seventy years earlier. And James Watt’s was the first ever.

Stephen Gold’s radiator was two thin plates of sheet iron fastened together around a rope-like material to seal the radiator against steam leaks. He used a decorative valve on the inlet side to let the steam in and a small cock on the opposite end to let air out. That cock connected to an internal tube that reached down nearly to the bottom of the radiator. He knew that steam is lighter than air and would naturally rise to the top of the radiator. The tube gave the sinking air a way out.

The radiator looked so much like a quilted mattress that the name stuck. The “Mattress” radiator became America’s first house-heating radiator and Gold’s system became the first attempt at what we came to call one-pipe steam.

His system ran at low pressure, making it safe for in-home use. You didn’t need an engineer when you had a Gold system. He also introduced the automatic fire regulator and a crude water regulator. And he applied a diaphragm to operate the safety valve. In addition, he had an open glass tube connected to the boiler at a point just below the waterline. If all else failed, this glass acted as an automatic blow-off as the waterline dropped.

But it was the Mattress radiators that caused the biggest stir. Manufacturers of cast-iron radiators (or heaters, as they were then called) and the pipe men, such as Walworth and Nason, America’s first heating contractors (they did the White House!), furiously attacked the Mattress radiators. But Gold stuck to his guns and because it worked well and was safe, his system sold well throughout the Northeast.

What finally stopped him though, was the wailing of the women. Reports say that they always seemed to have some special thing to put right where that hideous great heating object had to go. A high-pitched cry went up to get rid of those ugly heaters.

In 1862, Joseph Nason invented his Nason pipe radiator and that spelled the beginning of the end for the Mattress radiator. Nason’s radiator had a one-pipe connection with a horizontal iron manifold that sat on the floor. He screwed into the manifolds a number of pipes, welded shut at their top ends. Nason’s radiators were expensive, though, because he had to cut, thread, and install each pipe by hand.

Growth was slow and the competition carried on until 1878 when another heating pioneer, J.R. Reed, working for the H.B. Smith Company, invented the Reed radiator. This was similar to Nason’s radiator with one huge difference: Reed pressed, rather than screwed, the pipes into their bases. This immediately brought the price down and, with its small size, spelled doom for Stephen Gold’s Mattress radiators.

The last time we see one is in a price sheet published in 1896. It sits unwanted, off to the side, like an old lady at a Sweet Sixteen party.

And with that, you’d expect the Mattress radiator, this antique loved by many heating men, and hated by most housewives, to pass from our tale forever.

But that’s not the way things work in this business.

And so it was that I found myself in the home of Doctor and Mrs. Cacioppi of Claverack, New York one cold January morning in 1989. Ed Bratton of Hudson, New York was still installing new one-pipe steam systems in people's homes at the time and he called to tell me about the place. “It’s a regular heating museum,” he said. “And everything is still working.”

So I drove three hours upstate with The Lovely Marianne and two of our daughters. I wanted the kids to see this because I knew it would be something they would long remember (and they have).

The doctor and his wife greeted us and showed us the house and his office in the front room. I smiled as he repeatedly called me Mr. Holomon, and just accepted it after a while because he had been practicing medicine for about a hundred years.

The kids were mostly interested in the wood stove Mrs. Cacioppi continued to use. “It works just fine, young ladies,” she said. “It’s as right as rain.” The girls looked at each other and giggled. “Here, let me show you how it works.” They still talk about that. Oh, and they also loved the pet rooster that roamed the house and the good Doctor’s office. You don’t get to see that on Long Island.

The mattress radiators, along with a dozen Reed radiators warmed this house, built just three years after Stephen Gold filed his patent in 1854. Think of it. This entire system was installed before the Civil War began, and was still working after all these years. Show me something made today that will last that long.

The steam fittings married the pipes through rust joints, a hub-and-spigot connection made by filling the space with jute and a paste of iron filings. To this they added sal ammoniac and sulfur to form a cold weld that looks like a leaded connection between a cast-iron drainage pipe and fitting. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The other reason we went to visit the Cacioppis was to look at a problem they were having with the replacement boiler. A local heating company had installed a new cast-iron boiler and hadn’t followed the manufacturer’s instructions on the near-boiler piping. The knuckleheads set the new boiler to run at a ridiculously high pressure, which led to wet steam, a surging waterline, and water hammer. Knuckleheads don’t know what they’re doing, but they never let that stand in their way.

We solved the problems, and by way of thanking me, the good doctor offered me one of his Mattress radiators that a Reed radiator had replaced long before my grandparents were born. I carried that radiator with me to the seminars I did for years. I’d smile as contractors would run their hands over it and imagine the generations of contractors who came before them. Most of them recognized the magic.

Time passed and I donated the radiator to a local technical college, where it would be safe long after I'm gone. It's nice to know I can visit it. And if you ever want to see one in action, wait for a cold evening New York City and go to Fish Bar in the East Village. The radiator is right up there on the wall. It does a great job, even after all these years.

But to finish this tale of the old doctor, years went by and I got another call from Ed Bratton. He said that the Cacioppi house, which had been abandoned for years after the couple passed on, had just been sold. The new owners would like me to come and look at the heating system.

I did of course.

The owner wanted to know if it was worth saving and I explained that it was probably the oldest residential heating system in America. He thought about that for a few moments and said, “I think I’ll keep it.” And isn’t that delicious?

If you liked that story, please share it with your friends. And please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you. I appreciate you so much for being here. Thanks.

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