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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Reverend Isaac Orr, "Inventor" of the Air-Tight Stove

The Reverend Isaac Orr was born in Bedford, New Hampshire in 1793 and died in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1844, at the age of fifty-one.  He graduated from Yale College in 1818, "having distinguished himself as a scholar, particularly in Mathematics and natural Philosophy," and became a teacher in the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, Hartford, and then the national agent for the American Colonization Society and Secretary of the African Education Society in New York. ["American Obituary for 1844," The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge, for the Year 1845 (Boston: James Munroe & Co., 1844), pp. 311-24 at p. 320.]

The learned and evangelical circles Orr moved in included three other influential Yale men: the Reverend Dr. Eliphalet Nott, principal of Union College, Schenectady, and the most prolific and influential anthracite heating stove inventor of the 1820s and early 1830s; Prof. Denison Olmstead, who also invented and profited by his own anthracite heating stove; and Prof. Benjamin Silliman, a publicist for the new wonder fuel and also for the domestic comfort and economy that it could provide. Nott, Orr, and Olmstead all demonstrated what a later commentator thought of as the blessings of America's patent system, which they all exploited: it had enabled "men of genius to live by their wits; a thing which thousands have always endeavored to do, but seldom succeeded in.  Now, when a man of brilliant faculties is nothing but a Professor, Teacher, or Artist, or Clergyman, at a poor salary, he turns his leisure hours to inventing something, for which the public are willing to pay."  And "why not?  Why should men of letters, of science, and the elegant arts, be compelled to sigh their hours away in penury?"  This was a question that Nott, Orr, and Olmstead had all asked, and answered to their own profitable satisfaction.  [For Nott and Orr, see The African Repository, and Colonial Journal 5 (1829-1830),; Orr and Olmstead both published in Silliman's American Journal of Science -- for Orr's contributions, see "On the Process of Memory," 23:2 (1833), pp. 278-280, and "To the Mathematicians of the United States and of Europe," 24:2 (1833), pp. 395-6,; for the quotation, see "American Inventive Genius -- Patent Office Report" [reprinted from the Rail Road Record], The Cincinnatus 2:12 (1 Dec. 1857), pp. 546-7,] 

Orr's chief claim to fame was his "invention," or at least patenting in 1836, of the air-tight, sheet-iron, wood-burning stove that bore his name.  This claim was disputed during his life and after his death by people who argued that Orr could not have invented this stove type because it was already well known and readily available.  [See Endnote]  But those criticisms did not stand in the way of his and his widow's ability to collect large sums from the makers to whom they licensed a right to manufacture and sell the comparatively cheap and simple appliances (far lighter and less costly than cast-iron stoves of similar capacity) that his patent controlled, and that any blacksmith or sheet-iron worker could manufacture.  By the mid-1840s, they were making about $4,000-$5,000 a year from this source, and were understandably frequent litigants in the federal courts as they attempted, usually successfully, to defend the goose that kept laying their piles of golden eggs. ["Matilda K. Orr v. James Littlefield and others, Circuit Court of the United States for the District of New Hampshire, October Term, 1845," Law Reporter 8:7 (Nov. 1845): 314-319 at p. 315,]

Orr had first come to the stove-making and -using public's attention early in 1833, with his widely reported assertion that he had "a stove of common size in his room, which he has found by actual experiment will keep a fire burning day and night the whole year round, with one cent's worth of wood a day, at $6 the cord! The fire will require touching but twice in twenty-four hours."  ["Economical Stove," Mechanics' Magazine, and Register of Inventions and Improvements 1:2 (Feb. 1833): 56,]  Three years later he patented it, providing an enormously long and wordy description of his stove's design, principles of manufacture, and methods of use in support of his claims, an application of a sort which the new Patent Act of that year, and the introduction of a professional examination before a patent could be granted, would soon render more difficult.  It survives in the archives of the US Patent and Trademarks Office in two versions, the handwritten 20 January 1836 original (Patent X9331, "Improvement in the Air-Tight Stove; and in the management of Fuel and Heat") and a reissued (and significantly revised) printed version of 12 November 1842 (Reissue 48, "Improvement in Air-Tight Stoves," attempting to address the defects in the original that had caused Justice Story to reject his suit against William C. Hunnemann & Son of Roxbury, Mass., for violating it, earlier in that year.  ["Mercantile Law Department. Law of Patents -- Orr's Air-Tight Stoves," Merchants' Magazine & Commercial Review 12 (Feb. 1845): 177-8,, reporting the later injunction case of Orr v. Badger in the U.S. Circuit Court, which Orr's widow won; the Hunnemann case had been settled earlier, for the plaintiff's costs and nominal damages of $5.]

The principal objectives of Orr's original invention were "lessening the consumption and ... increasing and otherwise improving, the effect of fuel" by designing a stove that was more efficient and controllable "than ... any stove known with less trouble in the management and with greater safety when the fire is left to itself."  The essence of Orr's design was to make his stove "so nearly air tight ... as to have the combustion of the fuel ... under the entire, immediate and ready control of the operator, so that he can raise it at once to any required degree of power, put it out or reduce it to any required or useful degree of slow combustion," and even "retain the fire merely alive, for a night or more or less, for the purpose of kindling without burying or stopping with ashes."  The resulting uniform but variable heat would be "especially useful for consumptive people" -- a common claim among stove inventors.  It depended on "making the openings to and from the fire, as few and small as is consistent with convenience and as tight as is requisite."  

There was nothing new about an air-tight sheet-iron stove per se, so Orr's claim depended on the combination of new or distinctive design features that his embodied -- as we can see in the sketch below, a sliding door (d) for fuel; a rotating circular regulator (Fig. 2) to control the air supply; a balanced flap (i) to maintain some room ventilation via the chimney; a damper (d) and distinctive chimney cap to aid in combustion control and prevent downdrafts; and a cast-iron insert (Fig. 3) enabling the stove to be converted into an anthracite-burner, if so desired.

Isaac Orr's Original Patent Drawing, 1836

Orr's patent did not impress the most important and expert contemporary critic, Thomas P. Jones, formerly Superintendent of the Patent Office, and editor of the Franklin Institute Journal, the principal means by which information about significant new inventions was communicated to members of the technically savvy American public.  Jones was quite dismissive: it was not "easy ... to tell for what this patent has been obtained; whether for a stove of a particular construction, or for the art of managing the fuel."  Orr's claims on his invention's behalf were "general and diffusive," and all that distinguished his device from many similar, including some already patented, was the "degree of good fitting" and perfection of workmanship. ["List of Patents Issued in January, 1836, for Improvements of Machines, &c., to be Used in Agriculture of Domestic Economy.  With Remarks, by the Editor of the Journal of the Franklin Institute [Extracts from the Journal of the Franklin Institute]," The Farmer's Register [Petersburg, VA] 4:6 (Oct. 1836): 353-6 at 354-55,]

However, fortunately for Orr, Jones was no longer taking the decisions, and his evident opinion that the only patentable novelty resided in some of the individual design elements did not stand in the way of the acceptance of the whole.  When, six years later, the patent was judged defective, Orr was able to rewrite it almost completely, eliminating problematic claims and marginal features, and supplying far more detail about construction and operation, so that it continued to produce a good income for his widow years after his death.  Even after the patent finally succumbed to challenge, Orr's stove (or at least, the sheet-iron air-tight) lived on, as a standard product in many stove-makers' stock lists for the next several decades.
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Revised claims in the 1842 Reissue:

[p. 1] The main objects of my invention are to keep a store of air and fuel hot and otherwise prepared in the highest useful degree for combustion; to cause the same hot air in the stove to circulate many times to, through, and around the fuel and fire; to keep the air of the room soft, moist, and mild in the highest useful degree, and to keep a low fire burning steadily for several days without tending. 

[There follows a detailed description, and guidance on manufacture, installation, and use.]

[p. 3] The peculiar advantages and effects of the air-tight wood-stove may be summed up as follows: The fire is easily regulated. A store of wood sufficient for from one to seven days can be kept constantly hot, dried, and charred and slowly burning without any attention. Very little air but what is heated ever comes in contact with the fire, as a store of heated air is always kept in the large air-chamber of the stove, and mixes with the fresh air admitted before it touches the fire. By means of the circulation of the hot air and smoke the whole stove is kept at nearly the same temperature. The temperature of the apartment is regulated with the greatest ease and a uniform temperature preserved for any length of time. The air of the room is rendered soft and mild, and so moist that a thick dew is often deposited on the windows, even in mild weather, and the air is never injured by coming in contact with red-hot iron. A cough or headache is relieved and even cured by the air. The furniture and wood-work are less shrunk and cracked by the use of this stove than even by summer weather. The chimney, being closed at the ventilator and heated by day and open during the night, rapidly renews the air of the room and makes it drier and less chilly, while it is colder.

A great economy of fuel is effected by this stove, as almost all the heat madein it is saved and given out to the apartment, instead of being carried away through the flue. It also effects a great economy of time, as it uses much less fuel and has to be supplied with fuel much less frequently than any other stove known, and as the combustion can be regulated with so great ease and certainty.  [Orr claimed that it was only necessary to remove ashes every two to four weeks.]

Other biographical snippets:

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Note: A charming account of a much earlier sheet-iron stove user and advocate is Ann Bromfield Tracy's memoir of her brother John, a Newburyport and Boston merchant:  

[p. 93] "From John's miserable constitution, he was compelled  to give much attention to subjects connected with slender health; and among these stood early on the list, the best mode of heating rooms, during our very cold, and often protracted winter season.

For himself, after having carefully observed and carefully studied the comparative advantages of the  most approved modes, and having in his own case no  reference to elegance of appearance, he adopted, thirty-five //p. 94 or more years ago [i.e. c. 1816, the "Year Without a Summer"], the simple, cheap, easily obtained sheet iron stove; as the most effective for  the attainment of immediate heat, the degree of which might be easily regulated by a register, and a damper in the funnel; and the dry heat would be avoided by keeping a tea-kettle, or any vessel of water on the top, thus yielding hot water for shaving, or tepid water for bathing, to those who did not prefer  cold; and "last, though not perhaps least," in his  view, this stove admitted the use of no fuel but wood, which he esteemed as more healthful than any kind  of coal

He used no other stove in his own apartment, through life; having procured a new one of the same sort but a short time before his decease.

When Mr. Orr's air-tight sheet iron stove, a few  years since, came into general and approved use, my  brother remarked, that it was very gratifying to him  to find a mode of heating rooms, which we had considered a blessing, and had used for nearly thirty  years, should now, with some improvements, but essentially  the same, be received into general use; and then referred to some items, which he had long  thought ought to be observed, and concerning which,  Mr. Orr is particular in his printed description, to wit:

"That the stove should be air-tight, that the stove  funnel should be kept cleansed and scraped; that a //p. 95 ventilator is essential to the enjoying the very great  advantages of his mode of warming a room."

I have often heard him say, that it was a source of  unspeakable satisfaction to him, that he, who had the  means of procuring the best, were any better accessible, was now using from choice a stove, that might be bought for a few dollars with more or less funnel,  according to the size and height of the room, by every  poor family in the country, at the sacrifice only of  strong drink, and tobacco, and by industrious habits  in the husband; and by the exclusion, on the part of  the wife, of unnecessary articles of dress, and many  unreasonable wants, such as the indulgence in green  tea, loaf sugar, &c., not needed for the table; and at the same time, the free use of water, in a warm room,  might induce habits of personal cleanliness, that  would soon become as delightful as they would be  salutary to the health.

His apartment was [p. 132] "a commodious chamber on the second  floor, ... having two or three closets, one  large enough to contain half a cord of wood, if he had  desired to have so much at a time, and being furnished  also with a variety of the best kindling stuff in use;  which being placed by himself overnight in his "best  of all possible" sheet iron stoves, went off at the touch //p. 133 of a lighted match in the morning, like a small piece of ordnance, thus heating his room in five minutes to 75 degrees of Farenheit (sic). He was aware, that with his  habits of early rising he ought not to expect, or desire,  any one to be in his room at half past 4 o'clock,  in the winter season, to light his fire, even had he  wished such a service done for him, but with his previous  preparations for producing a quick heat, any one in his chamber would have been an annoyance instead of a convenience. 

On the day of his death he [p. 164] "kindle(d) the fire in his trusty sheet iron stove,  for the last time; and ... shave(d) himself for the grave!"

Ann Bromfield Tracy, Reminiscences of John Bromfield [Not Published] (Salem, MA: Gazette Office, 1852),

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