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Which Came First: Steam or Hot-Water Heating?

alfred king

Mr. Alfred G. King, it’s so good to hear your voice, even though you’ve been dead for quite some time.

Thank you, sir. And may I inquire as to your name?

Sure. I’m Dan Holohan. I read all of your books and learned a lot from you when I was growing up in the heating industry. In fact, I even wrote some books of my own.

On what topic, sir?

Oh, pretty much on the same topics as yours: Steam and hot-water heating and all the delicious history that wraps around those topics.

Do you have a wide audience, sir?

I do, and they’re listening to us right now.

That’s good. It’s been some time since anyone has listened to me. How may I help you all today?

I’m thinking about our roots and wondering about which came first: Steam or hot-water heating? I’ve been told by some other Dead Men that it was hot water and that the first to use that system was a Frenchman by the name of Bonnemain. Do I have that right?

Well, Mr. Holohan, there has been quite a little argument among heating men as to whether steam or hot water was the agency first used for heating, but it depends on the country we’re considering. I think there is no question that steam was used first in this country. It is true, however, that a French nobleman named Chabannes, who was residing in England at the time, devised a system of heating with hot water. He had gotten the idea from a French poultry farmer named Bonnemain, who was using hot water in a very crude manner to warm a chicken brooder.

Ah, there he is! Monsieur Bonnemain. So what I heard was correct then. It was hot water, but only in Europe. We Americans started with steam and then moved on to hot water. Is that correct?

Yes. The Frenchman Chabannes shared his hot-water ideas with some English foundrymen and engineers. Jacob Perkins was one of those men. He and his son later developed the Perkins system of hot-water heating, which was a high-pressure system with an overhead supply.

I see.

Perkins, Son & Co. was a manufacturer of wrought-iron fittings and pipe, and they were exporting some of their goods to the United States. This caught the attention of a young man named Joseph Nason, who was working for the Boston Gas Light Co. at the time and using Perkins’ fittings. He quit his job and moved to England around 1823 to work for the Perkins concern. He stayed there seven years, learning their system of heating and absorbing as much information as possible about the manufacturing of pipe and fittings.

So what happened?

When he returned to the United States, Mr. Nason formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, J.J. Walworth. These were the first men to heat a building with steam, our very first heating contractors. They were also American pioneers in the manufacturing of cast-iron fittings of all kinds, and the inventors of many of the tools and appliances we used in my day, and that I suppose you continue to use today. In the early days, their business was mainly the fitting-up of steam-power appliances for mills and factories because that’s where the money was at the time.

So where was their first steam-heating system?

The first building in this country to be heated by steam was the Eastern Hotel in Boston. They also installed the first fan system of heating and ventilating in the world.

And where was that?

It was in the Boston Custom House, and they did that in 1850.

Did they use cast-iron boilers for these jobs?

No, George B. Brayton of Westerly, Rhode Island, made the first cast-iron boiler. He mounted it on a small locomotive in 1849 and it wasn’t until 1864 that a boiler of this type found its way into a building for heating purposes. And they had considerable trouble getting the approval of city authorities for this project.

Where was this?

It was on the business block of Weybosset Street in Providence, Rhode Island.

That’s a nice place for Italian food these days.

I wouldn’t know. I don’t dine out these days. I’m dead.

Right. So tell me what that boiler looked like.

It was a series of vertical, cast-iron sections, each about 4-inches thick and 30-inches high. These were mounted on a brick setting and nippled to cast-iron supply-and-return headers on the exterior of the brickwork. The furnace, grates and fire chamber were entirely separate from the boiler proper.

Did Mr. Brayton do well with it?

Yes, he exhibited it at the American Institute Fair in Boston in 1865 and he won an award and a medal. Then he sold his patterns and patents to the Exeter Machine Works of Exeter, New Hampshire.

Was this a low-pressure boiler?

Oh my, no. At that time, all boilers were expected to carry considerable pressure, and with that in mind, you can understand why Mr. Brayton had to convince the public that his cast-iron boilers were safe. The people who were making other sorts of boilers did not make it easy for him. They saw cast-iron as a new form of competition and fought him every step of the way.

Perhaps that’s why he sold his company.

Yes, most likely.

What happened next?

Not long after this, John Mills of Boston invented his boiler, which incorporated the nipple and locknut to connect the sections. He also used grate bars of the rocking or tilting type, and that was a major improvement in boilers. He made these in the foundry of Mills, Pratt & Co., and later transferred the patterns to the foundry of H.B. Smith, Co. at Westfield, Massachusetts.

H.B. Smith made those boilers for many years.

That’s good to know.

Coal grates are interesting. Tell us more.

They are! And they have a wonderful history. In 1808, Judge Jesse Fell of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, became the first person to burn what he called “black rocks.” He used an open grate or a partially enclosed fireplace to do this. It remained for Samuel Smythe, a country storekeeper, to devise the method of coal burning that became popular in later years. His general store was in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. He perfected the first duplex grate and there has never been any material change to it to this very day.

This very day being January 15, 1921, Mr. King?

That is correct, sir.

This is fun, Mr. King. You’re talking to us from 1921 and you’re telling us about the old days, which to us are the very old days.

We learn from those who came before us, sir.

Indeed we do. Tell me a bit about Mr. Gold and how he heated houses with steam.

Ah, Samuel Gold! He designed the first real house-heating system. He had already designed the Gold pin radiator, and his house-heating system consisted of a sectional, cast-iron boiler, which was set within a brick chamber.

The pin radiators were suspended in parallel rows within a chamber above the boiler. The front of the boiler was flush with the brickwork on one side of the chamber. He left the exterior surface within the chamber uncovered.

This surface, together with the pin radiation, gave off a large amount of heat, which was conveyed to the various rooms by heated air, which moved thought tin pipes and entered the rooms through registers. It operated much the same as a furnace system operates today.

What about the rooms far from the boiler? How did he heat those?

Those, he heated with direct steam in pipe coils. He sold his system through the H.B Smith Co.

He also made the mattress radiator, didn’t he?

He did. These were made of sheets of iron riveted together with the joints soldered to prevent leakage. The steam connection was at the bottom at one end, and the air was exhausted though a small air pipe at the opposite end.

Were they popular?

No. They took up as much room as a mattress hung on the wall. Mr. Nason and Mr. Walworth had each designed a pipe radiator that they made by screwing short lengths of wrought-iron pipe into a cast-iron base in one-, two-, three- or more rows. These were smaller, very attractive and each became very popular.

And I still see many of those today.

Seriously, sir?


Who knew they would last so long?

Some things just do, Mr. King. I’m glad you’re still talking to us after all these years.

As am I, sir. As am I. Thank you for asking.


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