Honoring Black Pioneers in HVAC-R
Black History Month is a great time to reflect on the achievements and legacy of African American men and women who have improved life for everyone through their talent, determination and innovation. While we most often hear about Black leaders in areas like education, the arts, sports, science and government, even the HVAC-R industry has benefited from the genius of African American trailblazers. Let’s meet a few of those people!
David Nelson Crosthwait, Jr. (1898-1976)
An expert in air ventilation, central air conditioning and heat transfer systems, Crosthwait holds 39 U.S. patents and 80 international patents related to heating, cooling and ventilation. He was an expert in environmental control for larger buildings, for which he invented a vacuum pump, a boiler and a thermostat control. Among his many notable achievements, he created heating systems for Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, two iconic buildings in New York City. Crosthwait earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Purdue University, and the school honored his lifetime of achievement with an honorary doctorate degree in 1975. He was also the first African American elected a fellow of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).
Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961)
Despite a difficult start in life that included dropping out of school after sixth grade, Frederick McKinley Jones distinguished himself as a mechanic, a prolific inventor and a pioneer of modern refrigeration and cooling. He is, perhaps, best known for inventing and patenting a portable cooling unit that replaced the use of blocks of ice to protect perishables during transport. His invention became a lifesaving tool during World War II when it was used to transport blood, medicine and food to the battlefield and to nearby military hospitals. Jones is also cofounder, with Joseph Numero, of Thermo King Corporation. In addition to his inventions related to HVAC-R, his 60-plus patents include a portable X-ray machine, a movie ticket dispenser, an early form of radio service for local doctors and a soundtrack synchronizer. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush posthumously awarded Jones the National Medal of Technology. He was the first African American to receive that honor.
Lewis Latimer (1848-1928)
The son of former slaves who had escaped to freedom in 1842, Lewis Latimer had a difficult childhood as his father struggled with his legal status as a freeman. As a young man, Latimer served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War then got a job at a patent law firm. It was a perfect position for him, as he was a brilliant and diversified inventor. Among his creations was an evaporative air conditioner that helped to pave the way for modern air conditioning. Other inventions included improvements on the newly developed electric lightbulb, a better toilet system for railroad cars and a safety device for elevators. Among his positions during his distinguished career, he worked for Alexander Graham Bell and, later, Thomas Edison.
Alice Parker (1895-1920?)
There are many missing pieces in the biography of Alice Parker — including her date of death. However, it is well established that the highly educated honors graduate of Howard University Academy was a visionary inventor. At a time when homes were warmed by fireplaces and wood- or coal-burning stoves, Parker created the first gas furnace. It burned natural gas and was the first heating system that featured a heat exchanger and individually controlled air ducts that enabled an early form of zone heating. Her invention had other practical advantages: It eliminated the need for people to chop wood or handle coal, and it was safer because it was no longer necessary to leave a fire burning in the house all night. Although her initial designs were never used, they were the building blocks for modern heating systems and led to further advancements like thermostats, forced air furnaces and central heating for both residential and commercial buildings.