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The Magic of a Simple Air Vent

In this episode, Dan Holohan shares the story of how the air vent made quite an impression on those who were able to afford this relatively new thing called steam heat in 1924.


Episode Transcript

I came across the December 1924 issue of Popular Science magazine. Reading stuff like that always makes me feel like I have a time machine. Macy’s had just marched off on its first Thanksgiving Day parade that year. And the Ideal Toy Company, which had invented the Teddy Bear in 1903, came up with another winner in 1924. Her name was Flossie Flirt. She was the first toy ever made using an assembly line. Flossie would set Moms and Dads back $2.75. Imagine that.

There’s an ad for an air vent in that issue of Popular Science. The headline reads, "Heating experts discover how to make cold radiators hot."

Who could resist that?

There’s a cutaway drawing of the air vent. It looks very well made in the drawing. It had a siphon tube about an inch and a half long that reached into the radiator. That was to remove the condensate before it has a chance to squirt out the vent hole. As time went by and big column radiators gave way to narrower tube radiators, vent valve manufacturers switched from the siphon tube to a smaller metal tongue that would not project as deeply into the radiator.

Seeing those tongues on today’s steam vents always makes me smile because some years ago, one of the vent manufacturers, in an attempt to make a cheaper vent, decided to eliminate that tongue. When the new vents went to market, they spit all over the place. One of the young engineers at the company called me for advice. I asked him why they had left out the tongue.

“No one here knew what the thing did,” he said. “So we figured it wasn’t important or necessary. You know, sort of like your appendix. We could do without it.”

“No you can’t,” I said.

“I know that now,” he said.

“You could have asked me before,” I said.

“I know that now,” he said.

“Is there anything else I can tell you ?”

“Yes,” he said.

“How did you know what the tongue was for?”

“I read about it in your literature from the old days,” I said. “The people who used to run your company told me about it. I just had to read.”


Anyway, my time machine tells me that the vent in the Popular Science ad was a very big deal in its day. Here, listen to their pitch:

“Clever contrivance cost $1.60. Can be installed by anyone!”

So they’re going straight to the homeowners. That’s good because the homeowners are the ones having the problem. The manufacturer wants them to spend $1.60, which would be about $51.00 today on an air vent. That’s not exactly cheap, but it was a lot less than Flossie Flirt. And what did Flossie know about venting air from steam radiators? Nothing, right?

Here’s more from their ad:

“A remarkable mechanical device is now being made to get full heat from steam radiators. The secret of it lies in its ability to distinguish between air and steam, or air and water, and to keep the radiator constantly free from air without permitting the escape of the other two elements. Hence the name Airid because it rids the radiator of cold air.”

I like that. Don’t say what it is; say what it does. That’s what people are buying - what it does.

And listen to how hard they had to work to make that air vent.

“The Institute of Thermal Research in Buffalo, NY worked for many years to perfect Airid. They knew that it must not hiss with escaping steam, nor drip with water. They knew that it had to be absolutely automatic and permanently adjusted so that no one could tamper with it.”

I’ll bet you never heard of The Institute of Thermal Research. And isn’t that just the best name ever? It sounds so big and, well, important. It was a part of the American Radiator Company and it was in Buffalo because, at the time, Buffalo was turning out more things related to heating than any other city in the world. Imagine that.

American Radiator Company had three large plants in that city and they had built The Institute of Thermal Research onto their plant on Elmwood Avenue in 1910, and expanded it in 1924, the year their ad appeared in Popular Science. They claimed the Institute was the only facility in America devoted to “the problems of better warmth.” The building contained administrative offices, a lecture hall, and laboratories filled with thermometers, humidistats, flue-draft gauges, water meters, fuel consumption recorders, and other instruments they used to measure the performance of radiators and boilers in all sorts of buildings.

And it is a gorgeous building, designed by architects Schmidt, Garden & Martin, the same folks who designed The Art Institute of Chicago. But today, it houses high-end apartments. It stopped being The Institute of Thermal Research in 1959. I checked out the apartments online. There are no radiators in any of them.

I know. Makes you want to scream, doesn’t it?

But back to their air vent. This particular one was a big deal because many of the air vents other manufacturers made had been squirting water and spewing steam, and that was keeping the air from leaving as it should. And if the air can’t get out, the steam can’t get in. Listen:

“Steam, on coming into a radiator pushes air ahead of itself. Unless this air can escape, it forms a barrier beyond which steam cannot penetrate. Thus it is possible for as much as half the radiator to be literally choked with cold air. No wonder steam radiators equipped with old-style air vents won’t get hot!”

See how they’re making their case directly to the homeowners? Here’s more from the ad:

“Airid rids the radiator of this cold air. Inside of Airid’s nickel-plated case is a little float, which may be said to contain the brains. Cold air, propelled by steam passes around this float and out a vent hole at the top of the valve."

Many of the air vents made to that point worked with bimetal elements that expand when hot to shut off the vent. These quickly went out of adjustment and vomited steam and dirty water. Hoffman Specialty had come up with their Number 1 steam vent in 1917, and their vent, like the Airid, had a float. The two companies would compete with each other for years, and they both would go directly after the homeowners.

Listen again to the American Radiator Company:

“Anyone can make a cold radiator hot by using the coupon below. Airid can be installed by hand in two minutes without tools. Just unscrew the old valve, after turning off the steam, and install Airid in the same hole, screwing it tight. Then turn on the steam and watch Airid work. The difference will surprise you. Your radiator will become hot almost immediately. And the total cost is only $1.60.

“Year after year, Airid will go on making your radiator hot. It saves the cost of fuel you might otherwise burn trying to force the fire for more steam pressure. It saves bills for redecorating made necessary by escaping steam and dripping water. It saves the wear and tear on nerves, caused by hissing and sputtering.”

Isn’t that grand? It’s just a simple air vent, sure, but note how they talk about saving money on fuel and the homeowner not having to redecorate as often. And gosh, it relieves stress. That must have made quite an impression on those who were able to afford this relatively new thing called steam heat in 1924. Manufacturers talked about what the thing did, as well as what the thing was. Nowadays, when homeowners talk about air vents, they probably want to talk about just one thing: Price. And that’s because most of us stopped talking about the magic somewhere along the way.

And that is why I spend so much of my time reading old books and magazines. They are filled with magic. And who doesn’t love magic?

I hope you liked that story, and if you did, please share it. 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 your taking the time to listen. It means a lot. Thanks.

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