The Legacy of the Dead Men

In this episode, Dan Holohan reflects on the Dead Men who came before us and the legacy they left behind.


Episode Transcript

My earliest memory of school goes like this: My mother, who smelled as fresh as autumn, and who was less than half the age that I am now, dressed me in blue slacks, a white shirt and a plaid necktie. I wore new brown shoes with laces. The bottoms of my shoes were as smooth as the sides of my equally new schoolbag, and they allowed me to slide ungracefully across the linoleum-covered kitchen floor, much to my mother's dismay.

In my schoolbag, I had crayons, several yellow pencils, a gum eraser, a pencil sharpener in the shape of an airplane and a Marble composition notebook. I can close my eyes today and still smell the inside of that schoolbag.

My mother marched me off to Saint Monica's Elementary School, which was two blocks away from our Manhattan apartment, and left me in the care of a dozen caring, yet terrifying, nuns. The good sisters wasted no time in filling my head with all the things I would need to know about reading, writing, arithmetic and, of course, heaven.

I still believe in heaven, and in angels, and in all the things the sisters taught me. They did a good job with me. I know heaven is somewhere out there. It's the place where the Dead Men live.

The Dead Men came before us and invented this science we call heating. They figured it all out and either invented stuff, thought up new ideas, or wrote books, which means they're still talking, even though they're all dead.

James Watt invented the steam heating system. It was crude, but it was the first. I'm sure he's in heaven.

Moses Breckenridge invented the one-pipe steam air vent. He's there too.

Stephen Gold invented the first steam boiler that operated safely. He also invented the first steam radiator that became commercially successful. Stephen sings with the angels.

John Mills invented the Mills boiler and the Mills System and penned one of the most important heating books ever written. He speaks here on earth, but he resides in heaven.

James Jones Wallworth and Joseph Nason were the first heating contractors. They're there, too.

Rolla Carpenter headed Cornell University's School of Experimental Engineering near the end of the Nineteenth Century, and wrote books that even today can hold me spellbound for hours on end on a snowy winter's night. I know he's in heaven.

R.M. Starbuck, the author of many fine heating books, his father and his brother were also in heaven, even as Doug Starbuck continued to run their family business in Turners Falls, Massachusetts for many years. That place was a treasure trove of heating oddities.

An old nun once told me that when I die, God is going to ask me two questions: Did I love? And did I learn? She said that if I can answer yes to both questions, I’ll get to live in heaven forever.

How simple that beautiful old woman made things for me, how beautifully simple. This is how I know the Dead Men are in heaven: They loved what they did, and they learned a great deal. They also taught, which requires both loving and learning. And they continue to teach those who are willing to learn. It's a relay, and today, we stand on their shoulders and stare into the future.

Gil Carlson, one of the greatest heating men who ever lived, moved to heaven in 1994. You may have never heard of him, but he was one of the most important people ever to work in the hydronics industry. He was a thinker, a writer, a teacher and one hell of an engineer. He thought up many of the concepts we nowadays take for granted.

The day I learned Gil Carlson had died was the same day I published my book, Pumping Away. The coincidence had me sitting very quietly for the better part of a day because the book opens with a story about Gil Carlson. The book is, in large part, about that great man - about what he did, and the ideas he left behind.

He taught me so much, and the fact that he took the time to talk to me at all continues to amaze me. Who the heck was I? Just some kid, who worked for a manufacturers’ rep. He could have ignored me. But instead, he taught me.

I owe him a great deal, and Pumping Away was my way of thanking him. I was going to send him the first copy to let him know what a difference he made in my life, but I couldn’t because he was in heaven.

Anyway, the story in the book goes like this. It’s titled, The Man Who Always Knew.

When I knew Gil Carlson, he was never far from the cigarettes he so loved. On the days when I was fortunate enough to be able to sit and listen to this giant of the hydronics industry, it was always through a haze of smoke. I think the man used only one match a day. Just to get him going.

The blue haze of those days seems almost poetic to me now. Gil was an engineer and he was brilliant. I was neither. Gil saw, I believe, the mechanics of hydronics in his mind's eye as Einstein must have seen the Universe. It all flowed together in a very visual way for him. It didn't for me.

But as a young man, I was lucky enough to have the chance to listen to him when he'd visit from Bell & Gossett's Illinois plant. We were their reps. Gil was B&G's Director of Technical Services for many years. He traveled the country and lectured to large groups of engineers about things hydronic.

When he'd come to New York, I'd sit in the smoke and attempt to see what he saw. I'd stare into the depths of my confusion and try to imagine the mechanical movements he described by way of charts and formulas as real things. I knew he saw them, but try as I might, I couldn't. Not at the time, anyway. On most days, I'd walk to the subway in total confusion and frustration.

I remember one January day when the wind blew cold in Manhattan and we sat together in an office perched high above Fifth Avenue. Gil was a quiet man who rarely spoke unless asked a question. I struggled to find one that wouldn't reveal too much of my ignorance.

Finally, and more to break the silence than for any other reason, I asked him how he'd come up with this idea that the location of the circulator matters in a closed hydronic system.

I knew that this principle, which Gil had proposed in an early-1960s paper, had radically changed the way professional engineers design hydronic systems. It's one of the cornerstones of hydronic heating, but it had never occurred to me to ask him this question before.

"When did you first get the idea about 'the point of no pressure change?'" I asked.

He turned from me and stared out the window for a long moment, and then he smiled and said, "Oh, it's just something I've always known."

"Oh," I echoed, like an empty canyon.

Of course, his answer struck me as pretty bizarre. The principle was obviously something he'd arrived at along the way, but apparently, he had realized it so long ago that he couldn't remember ever not knowing it.

"You mean you figured it out so long ago that you didn’t remember when?" I asked.

He smiled again. "No," he said, "I've just always known."

"But why did you write the paper when you did?" I persisted.

He took a long drag on his cigarette and exhaled. "I wrote the paper then, because that's when they asked me about it." He looked at me as though I should have known that. "You see," he continued, "I always knew about it, but they just never asked me before. That's why I wrote the paper when I did. Because they asked me." That quiet smile again.

"Uh huh," I said. "I see," I said. I let my empty head bob up and down. "I understand."

But, of course, I didn't. I'll tell you this, though. That moment burned itself into my brain, and as I think back on it now, I remember this neat quote I read somewhere: Talent is what you possess; genius is what possesses you.

May God bless you and keep you, Dead Men. And thanks. Thanks for loving, for learning, and for teaching me. 

And thanks to you, too, dear listener, for taking the time to listen. 

And that's my last story for you. It's been a joy talking to you every week for the past two years. I've enjoyed your company and I thank you for taking the time to be with me. Each day is a precious gift. Make the most of them.

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