In honor of Black History Month, D.P. Wolff would like to celebrate the achievements and contributions of three HVAC heroes who helped shape the industry, as we know it today. David Crosthwait Jr., Alice H. Parker and Frederick McKinley Jones deserve to be recognized and remembered for their vital roles in the historic transformation of the HVAC industry.
A master of HVAC technology, David Crosthwait Jr. was an expert on heat transfer, ventilation, and air conditioning. Crosthwait was born on May 27th 1898 in Nashville, Tennessee. He grew up in Kansas City, Kansas where he attended an all-black school.
From a young age Crosthwait trained to become an engineer. His parents and teachers were very encouraging and challenged him to do experiments and to make designs. Crosthwait upon graduating from high school in Kansas City in 1908 received a full academic scholarship to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He graduated in 1913 from Purdue at the top of his class with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, followed by a Masters of Engineering in 1920. Later on, Crosthwait moved to Marshalltown, Iowa to work for Dunham Company where he designed and installed heating systems. He also was in charge of diagnosing heating system problems when they weren’t working properly. He rose through company ranks and was promoted to supervisor. While at the Dunham Company, Crosthwait designed the heating system for Rockefeller Center and New York’s City’s Radio City Music Hall, perhaps the most famous examples of his legacy.
Crosthwait was patented for 39 U.S. inventions and received 80 international patents for his work on heating systems, refrigeration, vacuum pumps, and temperature regulating devices. He was the author of a manual on heating and cooling with water and standards and codes that dealt with heating, cooling, ventilation, and refrigeration systems. Crosthwait won a medal from the National Technological Association in the 1930s and he became the first African American to be honored as a fellow of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers in 1971. In 1969 Crosthwait retired from the Dunham Company and began teaching courses at Purdue University. He died in West Lafayette, Indiana on February 25th 1976. Crosthwait still remains recognized in this industry for his many inventions and innovations in heating and cooling systems.
Educated at Howard University Academy, Alice H. Parker obtained a patent for her groundbreaking gas-powered furnace in 1919. At the time, houses were heated with wood or coal, although industrial heating applications utilized natural gas. In the 1920s using natural gas to power a heating furnace was a revolutionary idea that conserved energy and paved the way for the central heating systems we all have in our homes today.
Parker’s patent was filed on December 23, 1919 for her heating system invention. Her design allowed cool air to be drawn into the furnace, then conveyed through a heat exchanger that delivered warm air through ducts to individual rooms of a house. The concept of central heating was around before Parker was born, but her design was unique because it used natural gas as its fuel instead of coal or wood that had been previously used.
Parker is said to have been inspired for her design because she felt her fireplace was not effective enough in warming her home through the cold New Jersey winters. Her invention was convenient because it meant that people did not have to go outside and chop or buy wood. It also decreased the risk of house or building fires that heating units posed by eliminating the need to leave a burning fireplace on throughout the night. Although her initial designs were never used, her idea that natural gas and ducts could be used to heat different areas of a house was a major step towards the heating systems use today.
Very little is known about Alice Parker’s life. She was born in 1895, grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, and attended classes at the Howard University Academy in Washington D.C. The academy was a high school connected to Howard University, and in 1910 Parker earned a certificate with honors from the Academy. Parker’s filing a patent was a remarkable milestone, as she was an African American woman in the early 20th century. Her filing for a patent, preceded both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement which subsequently removed many of the barriers that women of her generation faced. At that time in history, African American women had very limited opportunities making it a truly unusual and outstanding achievement.
Frederick McKinley Jones was a prolific early 20th century African American inventor who helped to revolutionize both the cinema and refrigeration industries. Over his lifetime, he patented more than sixty inventions in divergent fields with forty of those patents in refrigeration. He is best known for inventing the first automatic refrigeration system for trucks.
Jones was born on May 17, 1893 in Cincinnati, Ohio. During World War I, Jones was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and served in France as an electrician. While serving, he rewired his camp for electricity, telephone, and telegraph service. In 1919, after being discharged by the Army, he moved to Hallock, Minnesota where he began his study of electronics, eventually building a transmitter for a local radio station. To make ends meet, Jones often aided local doctors by driving them around for house calls during the winter season. When navigation through the snow proved difficult, Jones attached skis to the undercarriage of an old airplane body and attached an airplane propeller to a motor. He was soon whisking doctors around town at high speeds in his new “snow machine.”
In 1927, Joseph Numero, the head of Ultraphone Sound Systems, hired Jones as an electrical engineer. Numero’s company made sound equipment that was used in movie houses throughout the Midwest. Always the innovator, Jones converted silent-movie projectors into talking projectors by using scrap metal for parts. In addition, he devised ways to stabilize and improve the picture quality. In 1939, Jones invented and received a patent for an automatic ticket-dispensing machine to be used at movie theaters. He later sold the patent rights to RCA.
Eventually, Numero and Jones formed a partnership called the U.S. Thermo Control Company, with Jones as vice president. He was given the task of developing a device that would allow large trucks to transport perishable products without spoiling. Jones set to work and his automatic refrigeration system, the Thermo King, was born. Eventually, he modified the original design so it could be outfitted for trains, boats, and ships.
The Thermo King transformed the shipping and grocery businesses. Grocery chains were now able to import and export products that previously could only have been shipped as canned goods. As a result, the frozen food industry was born and for the first time consumers could enjoy fresh foods from around the globe and U.S. Thermo became a multimillion-dollar company.
During World War II, the need for a device to store blood serum for transfusions and medicines, led Jones into further refrigeration research. For this, he created an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals and a refrigerator for military field kitchens. As a result, many lives were saved. A modified form of his device is still in use today.
In 1944, Jones became the first African American to be elected into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. During the 1950s, he was a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Bureau of Standards. When he died on February 21, 1961, Jones had more than sixty patents. In honor of his tremendous achievements as an inventor, he was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology. Jones was the first black inventor to ever receive such an honor.
Rupert, A. (2009, February 22) David Nelson Crosthwait, Jr. (1898-1976). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/crosthwait-david-nelson-jr-1898-1976/
Weber, E. (2018, April 01) Alice H. Parker (1895-?). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/parker-alice-h-1895/
Blue, C. (2008, June 30) Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/jones-frederick-mckinley-1893-1961/