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How ASHRAE Began

In this episode, Dan Holohan shares the story of Hugh J. Barron who helped found The American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers and encouraged the nascent I=B=R. He believed in learning, teaching, and sharing. He also saw the future well and he did not suffer fools.


Episode Transcript

You may never have heard of Hugh J. Barron. He was an Irishman by birth and a steamfitter by trade. He served with the Fighting Sixty-ninth. He became an independent contractor at one point and then a salesman. He was long a member of the Master Steamfitters Organization, where he and others prepared and read lengthy papers on the technical aspects of the at-the-time-new art called steam heating.

In 1894, the Master Steamfitters Organization invited David Nesbit, an English heating engineer, to deliver a paper to the group. Mr. Nesbit traveled across the Atlantic for this, but when he arrived, those in charge of the Master Steamfitters Organization insisted that he deliver the paper in 10 minutes or less. They had grown weary of all these long-winded presentations and callously put into place what I suppose was their version of Twitter.

Mr. Nesbit was, and quite understandably, upset. But not as upset as the Irishman, Hugh J. Barron. He went nuts. He immediately abandoned the group and got together with 15 like-minded heating professionals who wanted to learn more than could be taught in 10-minute chunks. They formed a new organization and called it The American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers. Today, we know that group as A.S.H.R.A.E.

Don’t mess with the Irish.

I have one of those lengthy papers that Mr. Barron delivered to the Master Steamfitters Organization before they made their ill-fated Twitter decision. He titled it, A Look Ahead, and presented it at their June, 1893 meeting. It rolls on for 14 typewritten pages. His intent was to predict what would take place in the heating business during the following 75 years, but he begins his talk by looking back 75 years. He tells the story of how our industry began, and a wonderful story it is.

And then, when he turned toward the future, I was amazed at how much he got right. This was one prescient Irishman. He predicted that radiators would quickly evolve into “poems in art.” When we look at those ornate Victorian beauties that appeared around the Turn of the Century we have to tip our hats to him. He sure got that one right. He also said that the steam radiators will be connected with a single pipe, and that pipe would be hidden within the walls. At the time, there was only two-pipe steam, and most of the pipes stretched unsightly through the rooms. He also said the radiator supply valve would be replaced with a foot valve so Victorian ladies would be able to control the heat without bending down. This, too, arrived shortly thereafter. “Let the radiator man study beauty,” he said. “His business is an artistic one.” And isn’t that a lovely way to look at our business?

He said that the natural development of architecture would lead to hot-air heating by indirect steam or hot water. These are the systems that have huge cast-iron radiators suspended within ductwork in the basement, and ducts running upward within the walls to conclude with beautiful grills on the floor or lower walls. This system arrived and most of them worked with natural convection alone, but Mr. Barron predicted that at some point, fans would become part of that system. He also predicted that electric-resistance coils would replace steam heat in many buildings.

“Cast fittings will disappear and be succeeded by malleable and wrought fittings, and also by steel fittings,” he said. “Screwed joints will, to a great extent, disappear and be replaced by electric welding. The exhaust steam from engines that is now thrown away in cities will be saved by having one large central pipe. Steam for heating will be taken from this.” Consider the steam-based, district-heating systems of cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

And then there was this prediction: “There are impending changes in the relation to the jobber. “Very soon, every contractor will buy from the jobber only, and no manufacturers will sell directly to consumers or contractors. “Every article and specialty will be distributed by the jobber. “Specialization will be carried so far that no jobber would think of manufacturing and no manufacturer would think of jobbing. “They could not make it pay. “Margins of business will be too close and business will be too well organized to allow anything of that kind. “Specialization is now carried very far in our particular business, but it will be carried much further. “Where specialization is carried to its extreme, as in the production of one simple article, competition becomes very fierce; so fierce in fact that it destroys itself by reducing profits to such a point as to make the carrying on of business undesirable.”

From there, he goes on to sing the praises of a radiator trust that was forming at the time. The members of that trust called it The Carbon Club and it operated along the lines of Standard Oil. If a company that was not a member of the club bid on a job, The Carbon Club’s members would band together and put that company out of business by offering the client incredibly low prices for the work and the material. They would lose money, sure, but they would also destroy the non-member of The Carbon Club. They changed the industry by doing this and they prevailed, even though their very existence violated the Sherman Antitrust Law.

Mr. Barron wrote, “The trust, to my mind, is merely a step in the march towards economic democracy. “I have spoken of product and cost; it means a great deal more than that; it means minimizing of profits also. “Roughly speaking, today, net profits in business are 20, 10 and 5 percent. The first figure being the maximum profit, the middle figure the mean profit, and the last, the point at which business is done, the lowest or minimum profit. “I believe that these profits will gradually go down in the next hundred years to 7-1/2, 5, and 2-1/2 percent or very close to those figures. “There are those who consider the Trust the greatest evil that menaces us at present. “I think they are mistaken. “Good and evil are only relative terms. Let us have faith that it only hastens the good time that is coming.”

The U.S. government disagreed with Mr. Barron and they busted the radiator trust. The Carbon Club changed their ways and went through a few name changes in the years that followed. They eventually emerged as the Institute of Boiler and Radiation Manufacturers, or I=B=R, for short.

Hugh J. Barron died on April 6, 1918 as his old regiment fought in The Great War. He was 62 years old. He helped found A.S.H.R.A.E and encouraged the nascent I=B=R. He believed in learning, teaching, and sharing. He saw the future well and he did not suffer fools. He was one tough Irishman.

I hope you enjoyed that tale. It’s good to know how things in the business came to be, isn’t it? Please share what you’ve learned, and if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I’ve got more stories to tell you in the weeks to come, and I so appreciate your taking the time to listen. It’s good to have friends. Thanks.

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