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Monday, February 2, 2015

Eliphalet Nott and the Anthracite Heating Stove

This brings together parts of Chapters 2 and 4.  The first piece is from Chapter 2, and follows a section where I was discussing the spread of stove heating into public spaces -- churches, schools -- before it became equally common in private houses.

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[From Chapter 2]

Schools were the not the only institutions where growing numbers of the North-East's young people spent increasing amounts of their time, and which were difficult or costly to heat in the traditional fashion. College dormitories, too, presented challenges. Harvard simply avoided them until the early twentieth century, leaving its students shivering around their open fires. But the problem of providing fuel-efficient, economical warmth for a new and cash-strapped institution seems to have been the initial inspiration for the work of early nineteenth-century America's perhaps most unlikely but also most influential stove inventor – the Reverend Doctor Eliphalet Nott (b. 1773), president of Union College, Schenectady from 1804 until his death in 1866, during a period when it was one of the largest and most progressive in the country (Figure #2.1).1

Figure #2.1. Eliphalet Nott, frontispiece to Van Santvoord, Memoirs.

Nott was born to a struggling family in Ashford, Connecticut, and orphaned young, but he nevertheless gained a good classical education and became a minister in 1795. He went as a missionary to New York State, and served as both pastor of Cherry Valley, about sixty miles west of Albany and then still a frontier settlement, and principal of the local academy that he established. If he had not already learned it, Cherry Valley, with its unheated barn of a church, and minimum temperatures down to -20º F, must have taught him the value of indoor comfort. As one of his successors recalled, “The feeble warmth of the foot-stoves carried by the women barely sufficed to keep the congregation from freezing as they listened to Dr. Nott's young and fervid oratory in the keen air of winter.”2

Nott's talents were quickly recognized, and in 1798 he moved to Albany to take charge of the Presbyterian “Court Church,” which brought him into contact with the state's political élite. In his preaching to them he developed an attractive theology reconciling religious belief with scientific progress, and placed his faith for improvement in “the marketplace, the workshop, and the schools of America,” all of which had their contributions to make toward realizing the kingdom of God on Earth. 

What elevated him above being a man of merely local influence was the duel in 1804 between two members of his congregation, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, and the obituary sermon Nott delivered on his friend Hamilton's death. According to one of Burr's biographers, it was “the strongest expression of feeling which the event elicited,” quickly recognized as a classic piece of eloquence by a culture that appreciated the art.  It helped, as Jabez Hammond later put it, to make Burr “politically as dead as he now is naturally.”3

Nott's resulting celebrity propelled him into a new career that suited his talents as an organizer and educator -- the presidency of Union College in nearby Schenectady, which he held for the rest of his long life. The college he took over was “pining for want of means and students,” and he rapidly transformed its fortunes in both respects, using his political connections and deal-making skills to assemble property for a campus, gain financial support from the state, and commence an ambitious program of construction and recruitment. In the process he acquired a problem – how to heat his new college buildings? -- which gave him an opportunity to apply what an early biographer called “the natural bent of his mind” to his “first love,” the natural sciences. Nott believed they were the route to material progress and prosperity: as he advised his young men in 1812, “It is an old proverb, That wealth is power. The same may be said, and more emphatically, with respect to knowledge.”4

That same year Nott commenced a course of experiments into what he later termed “those general principles of heat that have a bearing on most of the processes and comforts of human life,” in a laboratory that he built on campus. He believed that “We live in an age of action, not of study,” and that “There is no rest this side of Jordan, unless we take it at the expense of duty.” But every man needed some recreation, so he determined to use his little leisure profitably.  In his “occasional play hours” he gave “the little incidental attention that I was obliged to give to something” to a constructive pastime that “suited my own views of propriety better than walking, riding, or other kindred exercises.” He hoped to come up with beneficial results for “the human family. I should deem it a happiness, should it yet be in my power to increase the comfort of the rich, and lighten the expenses of the poor, and stimulate the exertions of the industrious.”5

The first beneficiaries were his own students. The college buildings were originally fitted with Russian stoves (see Chapter 1, note #46), but they did not heat the bedrooms. Nott's first attempt at stove design involved making a simple, cheap, wood-burning box stove that could be installed in every student's quarters, increasing their comfort quite economically.6 These stoves, known as “coffins,” were crude and heavy even by the standards of the time, but after their introduction in about 1815 they survived and warmed generations of students. As one later recalled, from his time at Union in the late 1840s,

The iron was about an inch thick and could be neither broken nor bent. It served as an anvil for all sorts of mechanical experiments, from the cracking of hickory nuts to the splitting of kindling wood. And even if in a playful mood, as occasionally happened, one of them took a flying leap from a fourth story window upon the pavement below, the only injury was to the person who might be standing under it. As for the stove itself it only needed to be carried back and put in its place again.7

By 1816, the “year without a summer” (because of the effects of the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia), whose “general misery ... swelled the stream of New Englanders moving west,” Nott was well set on his alternative career as a stove inventor, which would lead to at least twenty-five patents between 1819 and 1839. His reputation in this field, too, spread rapidly beyond the Albany-Schenectady-Troy district, so that in 1820, when the Lehigh Navigation and Mining Company wanted to encourage research leading to the design and manufacture of stoves to burn its anthracite, and build them a consumer market, it was to Nott that they turned. They went to the trouble and expense of sending him a free load of “stone coal” with which to experiment – an investment which paid off handsomely for both parties by the late 1820s. But that part of the story must await another chapter.8

This stove (Peirce, Fire on the Hearthp. 99), still in the Litchfield Historical Society's collections, may be a surviving "Coffin."  If so, it was hardly an "invention" at all -- it was just a version of the generic New England box stove.  Nor was it as thick and heavy as in Murray's account.  I have discussed Nott's work and the possible influence of the Shakers on his first heating "innovation" in my essay on Shaker stoves. 


1 William B. Meyer, "Harvard and the Heating Revolution," New England Quarterly 77:4 (Dec. 2004): 588-606. The standard work on Nott is Codman Hislop, Eliphalet Nott (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1971), but the near-contemporary Cornelius Van Santvoord, Memoirs of Eliphalet Nott, for Sixty-Two Years President of Union College (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1876), also remains useful.

2 D. Hamilton Hurd, The History of Otsego County, New York 1740-1878 (Philadelphia: Everts & Fariss, 1878), p. 128.

3 David G. Hackett, The Rude Hand of Innovation: Religion and Social Order in Albany, New York, 1652-1836 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 73-5 [quotation p. 75]; Parton, Life and Times of Aaron Burr, Vol. 1, p. 360; Nott, “A Discourse Delivered in the City of Albany, Occasioned by the Death of Alexander Hamilton, July 9, 1804,” in E.B. Williston, comp., Eloquence of the United States (Middletown, CT: E. & H. Clark, 1827), vol. 5, pp. 207-229; Jabez D. Hammond, The History of Political Parties in the State of New-York, from the Ratification of the Federal Constitution to December 1840 (Albany: C. Van Benthuysen, 1842), Vol. 1, p. 214.

4 [William Wells], “Union College,” Scribner's Monthly 12:2 (June 1876): 229-41, quotation p. 230; Hammond, History of Political Parties, Vol. 1, pp. 373-4, and Craig and Mary L. Hanyan, De Witt Clinton and the Rise of the People's Men (Toronto: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996), esp. pp. 39-41, on Nott as a political operator; James Parton, People's Book of Biography: Or, Short Lives of the Most Interesting Persons of All Ages and Countries (Hartford, CT: A.S. Hale & Co., 1868), p. 24; Nott, Counsels to Young Men on the Formation of Character, and the Principles which Lead to Success (New York: Harper & Bros., 1855), p. 101 [quotation].

5 1812 as the date of his first experiments from Wayne Somers, comp. and ed., Encyclopaedia of Union College History (Schenectady: Union College Press, 2003), p. 523; Van Santvoord, Memoirs of Eliphalet Nott, pp. 240-1, quoting undated letters.

6 Hislop, Eliphalet Nott, pp. 173-5, 179, 257; Editor, The Parthenon Magazine, "A Brief Memoir of the Reverend Dr Nott," The North American Magazine 2 (1833): 220-3 at p. 222.

7 Hislop, Eliphalet Nott, pp. 173-4; David Murray, “Annual Address: Industrial and Material Progress Illustrated in the History of Albany [delivered 25 May 1880],” Transactions of the Albany Institute 10 (Albany: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1883): 85-104 at p 94 [quotation]. Contributors to the Yale Literary Magazine through the winter of 1836-37 illustrated how important stove heat was to creating the comfortable private spaces in which a college student lifestyle emerged and thrived – see e.g. “Polymigia, No. 1,” 2:1 (Oct. 1836): 27-29 at p. 27; R.R., “Our Magazine,” 37-40 at p. 37; “Dick versus Dike, Or, the Invisible Steed,” 2:3 (Dec. 1836): 79-88 at pp. 82, 83; “An Antique Visitor,” 2:4 (Feb. 1837): 130-42 at pp. 130, 132, 133, 141.

8 Hislop, Eliphalet Nott, p. 173 [quotation] and Ch. 4.

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[From Chapter 4]

There were two important dates in the history of New York City and State's adoption of Pennsylvania anthracite: 1825, marking the completion of the Erie Canal after eight years' construction; and 1829, when the Delaware & Hudson Canal, jointly authorized by the legislatures of Pennsylvania and New York six years earlier, opened for through shipments from the north-east of the Anthracite District to Rondout on the Hudson, mid-way between New York City and Albany.

The Erie Canal was, briefly, a national wonder and source of inspiration. Eliphalet Nott impressed its significance upon his Union College students, whose campus in Schenectady was just half a mile from its banks: it demonstrated the huge potential of the United States for material and moral progress. “We have lived to see inland villages converted into ports of commerce, and inland products floating on artificial rivers traced by human hands, and connecting distant lakes with the distant ocean. These are achievements which must ensure celebrity to individuals, and render memorable the age they lived in.” 

When the Canal finally opened for through navigation, it immediately reduced by 90 percent the cost of shipping goods the 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo. It had already, even in its partly finished state (the first 280 miles opened in 1823), helped encourage the westward flow of freight and migrants from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, and this growth now accelerated sharply. Together with the completion of the Champlain Canal in 1827 and Oswego Canal in 1828, it strengthened Albany and Troy's natural advantages as centers for the commerce of a huge region stretching from western New England north as far as the St. Lawrence and west as far as the southern shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario. Their population doubled in the 1820s, and they rapidly became important locations for manufacturing and commodity processing as well as trans-shipment points between river and sea-going vessels and the canals. This had an immediate effect on the stove trade: the late 1820s through early 1830s was a period of unparalleled growth in the number of local firms active within it. ....1

1 Nott, Counsels to Young Men on the Formation of Character, and the Principles which Lead to Success (New York: Harper & Bros., 1855), for his “Address delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Union College,” n.d. [1820s], pp. 275-312 at p. 288; T.W. Van Metre, “Internal Commerce of the United States,” in Emory R. Johnson et al., History of Domestic and Foreign Commerce of the United States (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institute, 1915, repr. 1922), p. 220; Edward Howe, "The Hudson-Mohawk Region Industrializes: 1609-1860," Hudson River Valley Review 19:2 (Sept. 2002): 40-57.

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... because of supply problems (possibly a shortage contrived by the mining companies themselves), another severe winter, and sharply increasing demand resulting from household consumers' rapid adoption of anthracite grates and stoves, fuel costs surged in the latter part of 1831 and early 1832, both in New York and Philadelphia. Temporary agitation against the protective tariff on imported bituminous coal followed, but the more significant result was to renew and strengthen inventors' and consumers' interest in the search for fuel economy.1

#4.5 Eliphalet Nott and the Anthracite Heating Stove

New York inventors were prominent in this endeavor (see Table 3.#). The best known and perhaps most influential was Eliphalet Nott himself. The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company's gift to him in 1820 of a load of “stone coal” for experimental purposes began to produce results by 1826, when Nott took out the first of his twenty-four anthracite stove patents (his entrepreneurial and inventive energies up until then had been consumed in putting Union College's finances on a sound footing with the aid of the proceeds of state lotteries). Most of his early work has been lost, but it combined a set of empirically-derived principles for the efficient burning of anthracite with workable designs for heating stoves and their key components. Nott did not simply invent stoves, he went into business manufacturing them, setting up H. Nott & Co. in Albany in 1827, a company nominally owned and managed by his young sons Howard and Benjamin, but probably backed with Union College funds and dominated by Nott himself (his own, his college's, and his many speculative ventures' money were always almost inextricably confused, and the business's alternative name was the Union Furnace).2

Nott & Co.'s foundry was a substantial enterprise – it melted 150 tons of iron in 1828, and 250 by 1830, making it the third-biggest of Albany's five foundries, or the fourteenth-largest in the state; by 1833 it was the largest in Albany, melting over a thousand tons, 43 percent of the city total. But we cannot tell how much of that iron went into stoves, because the Union Furnace also made a wide range of other castings as well as building Nott's patentanthracite-fuelled boilers for the Hudson River's great steamboats. These burnt more than twenty tons of best pinewood on a single ten- to twelve-hour dash from New York to Albany, procured at great cost from Maine and the shores of Chesapeake Bay, and taking up valuable cargo space, so converting them to run on cheaper and much more energy-dense anthracite was an attractive proposition.3 In any event, Nott & Co.'s stove output was not limited by the casting capacity of its own works, because like other Albany stove-makers it still bought most of its stove plate from Pennsylvania and New Jersey furnaces – enough for another 1,500 to 2,000 stoves in 1830.4

Nott's ornate heating stoves had many distinctive features, all of which he attempted to protect against competition by taking out ten detailed patents on the same day in 1833, and successfully pursuing imitators, of whom the most flagrant was James Wilson, through the courts. The most notable were (a) the “magazine,” enabling users to fill the stove three or four times a day and keep a long-lasting fire, with the aid of (b) a grate hanging on trunnions, so that it could be shaken or turned over, permitting users to separate ashes and clinker from the fire with relative ease, and without having to let the fire go out, and (c) windows made of Vermont mica, to allow a sight of the fire and remove one of the common objections to installing a closed stove, particularly in the intimate setting of a parlor. His devices were neither perfect – the magazine had an unfortunate tendency to produce a build-up of explosive gas if incorrectly operated, and some users never mastered the revolving grate – nor altogether original; Oliver Evans, for example, had anticipated the mica windows a quarter-century earlier. But Nott’s stoves were a marvel at the time.5

[For more about Nott stoves, including illustrations,
see my blog post on columnar and parlor heating stoves.

They were also quite costly and, as befitted objects designed for middle-class consumers in both the public (shops, offices, hotels, churches) and private spaces that they occupied, uncommonly decorative. Nott claimed to be indifferent about style – his stoves could “present any external form, though some regular architectural form is preferred.” In practice, they usually wore that most modern of fashions, Gothic (the same as the new carriages built for the Albany & Schenectady Railroad in 1832, the “Gothic Cars,” whose decorative appearance was inspired by Nott's stoves). This distinguished them from the patriotic and neo-classical “Federal” design of most stoves up until then, including for example the one installed in the Bank of the United States branch in Boston in 1825, whose “dress” was “intended to be of a severe and masculine character becoming a National edifice of a young Republic.” Their appearance as well as their functionality turned them into aspirational goods for bourgeois consumers in the urban north-east. The fact that the furnace industry was capable of producing them, and in very large numbers, showed how far the skills of its pattern-makers and molders had developed by the end of the 1820s (Figure 4.#).6

Figure 4.#. Nott's “Stove Pipe,” U.S. Patent 7639X (1833) – designed to sit on top of one of his stoves, and illustrating (Figs. 1 and 5) the way in which the structure was built up from elaborately decorated, precisely jointed flat iron plates, bolted together; testimony to the skill of the molders at Nott & Co.'s foundry and/or its castings suppliers. The massive, heavy pipe functioned as a large heat-exchanger, as well as adding height and impressiveness to the stove. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.)

They were an almost immediate success, not least because of the effect upon consumer choices of urban fuel shortages during the severe winter of 1831-32. William Emerson, for example, wrote to his mother from New York that December, reporting “fuel scarce and high-priced, so that suffering among the poor was in prospect,” and described his Nott stove as “the greatest comfort ever devised in the matter of warming rooms”; his brother Ralph Waldo replied from Boston on Christmas Day, “I think I ought to have a Nott stove by your description of its beneficence.” 

Nott & Co. established in 1830 or 1831 its own store on New York's Water Street (see my post on the rise of the New York stove trade, for the context) to supply Manhattan with “A complete assortment of stoves for halls, stores, steamboats, churches, &c.,” and had agency agreements with dealers in other markets to ensure availability throughout the seaboard cities. Nott evidently expected his stoves to appeal to the English bourgeoisie too, sending another son, Joel (Union College's Professor of Chemistry), to represent the firm's interests in Great Britain, and making sure that his designs were patented, manufactured, and sold there.7

Nott's stoves soon became international celebrities of a sort in their own right, as well as early examples of the export of novel American manufactured goods to Europe. An American tourist, John McVickar, and his family, visiting the Alps in the late summer of 1830, were saved from death by the monks of the Hospice of St. Bernard, “among the choicest points of interest to the European traveller,” almost 8,000 feet up and the highest inhabited spot on the continent. While enjoying their life-giving hospitality, he learned that there were outcrops of poor-quality anthracite in the mountains nearby. This, he instantly realized -- McVickar was a versatile man, Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy, Belles-Lettres, Political Economy, and the Evidences [of the existence of God] at Columbia College -- could free the monks from depending on hauling firewood on mule-back twenty-five miles up from the valleys below. As their fuel was accordingly so hard to get, they could only afford enough for cooking and to warm their “shivering or frozen guests,” while they themselves froze all year round. American know-how and technology could liberate them from this hardship. Before he left he showed them how to make a crude grate and burn the anthracite, then after his return home he and four other New Yorkers raised enough money to buy a large Nott stove (about seven feet high, $25 wholesale), and a friendly shipping line provided free carriage to Le Havre. Overland transport to Switzerland cost $33, and by the Spring of 1833 the stove had been hauled up into the mountains in pieces (some of which broke on the way), assembled with difficulty, and successfully ignited to give “the blessing of abundant warmth to the pious brotherhood who pass their lives amid eternal snows, for the cause of ... humanity.” The “joy of the brethren” had “no boundary.” For them, the stove was “a monument which will perpetuate the generosity and the devotion of our friends in America.”8

This uplifting story was widely reprinted in the American press at the time, and soon given wider circulation by the German author Francis Lieber, to whom the Nott stove represented “a monument of American practical sense” and evidence of “the pulsations of extending civilization.” James Fenimore Cooper, who visited shortly after the gift arrived, was not so enthusiastic: his encounter with a group of monks who “did nothing but talk of stoves and coal mines” did not fit with his romantic image of Augustinian piety, but as McVickar's son acidly commented, he would probably have “sympathize[d] as fully in their feelings ... had he himself been under bonds to remain up in that freezing atmosphere for two or three years.”9

By the end of 1833 Thomas Jones, the editor of the Franklin Institute's Journal, simply assumed that “among those who live in our cities there are but few who have not seen [Nott stoves] in actual operation.” And not just in America's cities. In the winter of 1834-5, one of the leading tourist attractions in London, England was the great painted “View of New York” at the Panorama in Leicester Square. Appropriately, it was heated by a Nott stove, which its advertisers did not fail to mention; it was an attraction in its own right. By 1836 a Nott stove warmed the Museum of National Manufactures and the Mechanic Arts, also in Leicester Square, too, and by 1838 the London branch of Nott's Stove Company, the lasting consequence of Joel Nott's promotional visit, advertised them “for Warming Churches, Public Offices, Halls, Staircases, Shops, Warehouses, &c.” Nott became known in England not as an educator, rhetorician, or anti-slavery and pro-temperance moralist, but “chiefly for the stove which bears his name,” on sale between at least 1833 and 1845 and claiming to give out “twice the heat with half the fuel.” The international recognition Nott won made him unique among stove inventors both at the time and since. He had been elevated into a pantheon whose only other inhabitants were Benjamin Franklin and Count Rumford, both long dead, while Nott could still look forward to another three decades of life, in the course of which he turned into something of a national monument himself.10

Postscript: Nott and his Stoves in the late 1830s and after

Rereading the above [February 2015], I am struck by the fact that it has hardly anything to say about the later career of Nott and his stoves. That's because Chapter 4 of the book focused on the development of the urban market for anthracite fuel in the American north-east in the 1830s, and of the appliances consumers used to burn it.  That was the context within which I related Nott's story of invention, which was concentrated in the late 1820s and early 1830s, when he made his most important contributions as well as those that were documented best.  But it continued, to an extent, for some time afterwards, which was also when the commercial exploitation of his ideas, and the growth of the market for them, mostly took place.

Nott's participation in the "stove boom" of the early to mid-1830s was enthusiastic and, for a time, very successful.  After 1833, his inventive activity concentrated on extending the range of products he offered to include cooking stoves and ranges, mostly for anthracite but also for wood, still the principal fuel outside the major cities, which suggests an ambition to expand his market.  Nott's cooking stoves were highly elaborate.  They did work, but were not big sellers, and they had little influence on competitors or on later stoves. Nott seems to have been responding to middle- to upper-class consumer objections to the changeover to stove cookery, aiming to improve "the quality and flavor of articles cooked therein."  With iron stoves, he claimed, "the heat is variable, the smell offensive, and the quality and flavor of the articles cooked, injured." In addition, "much heat escapes into the room without producing any useful effect."  Finally, cooking smells permeated the house much more than with traditional open-fire cookery.  Nott's solutions involved insulating ovens and other parts of the stove, rigging up sheet-tin ovens in front or alongside the stove to capture waste heat, ventilating the oven into the smoke-flue, and even capturing smells from cooking vessels  on top of the stove, "the effluvia from each article being conducted off by separate pipes." 

Nott was not the only cooking stove inventor to pursue these objectives, but what the mass market really wanted in a cook stove was cheapness, simplicity, capacity, and controllability.  Fuel efficiency was not so large a concern, "waste" heat was welcome winter warmth, and as for cooking smells, American households for whom the kitchen was their principal or only living room were used to them, unlike those with servants, parlors, and dining rooms -- the class to which Nott belonged, and for whom he designed.

Nott's growing involvement in building steamboat boilers and engines encouraged him to construct a big, well-equipped new foundry on the East River in about 1833, and to relocate Nott & Co. from Albany to New York City entirely in 1836. However, he soon ran into the Panic of 1837, and in its aftermath the firm became insolvent. What happened then is hard to extract from the thin and somewhat contradictory surviving record, but his sons left the business, which was taken over by a new partnership under the nominal ownership of the Notts' former manager, Thomas Stillman, probably in 1838. However, Nott may have remained the actual owner until at least 1850. [Hislop, Eliphalet Nottpp. 356, 452, 477.] 

Even after the family firm's failure, Nott continued to improve the mainstay of his business, the magazine heating stove, and Nott stoves retained their presence in the New York City market.  Charles St. John Seymour and Robert M. Stratton, two of Stillman's partners, took over the Water Street premises, which doubled as the offices for the Novelty Works, and continued with the stove trade.  From 1842 onwards, that part of the old business passed to a new partnership, Charles J. and Thomas M. Shepard, who ran it as "Nott's Stove Warehouse," indicating the continuing value of the established brand name, until at least 1856.  Something similar seems to have happened in Albany, where there was also still R. & F. Harvey's "Nott's Stove Warehouse" in the mid-1840s, stocking his "Hall and Parlor Coal Stoves." Though they were no longer market leaders they were still good sellers, and the royalties Nott's successors in business paid to him for the right to use his patents continued to bring Union College a substantial income for years. [Ref needed?]


1 Frederick M. Binder, unitled review of Powell, Philadelphia's First Fuel Crisis, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 103:3 (July 1979): 402-4 at p. 403; Report of the Committee of the Senate of Pennsylvania, pp. 38-9, 80.

2 The following account supplements Hislop, Eliphalet Nott, pp. 261-71. For Nott's early patents, see “American Lottery, being a System of Arithmetical Chances,” Patent 4189X (1825); “Rotary Grate and Floor,” 4368X, “Evolution, &c., of Heat,” 4477X, “Evolution and Management of Heat,” 4622X, all 1826; “Evolution and Management of Heat: Grate,” 5048X, 1828; and “Magazine Stove: Stove Adapted to Open Fire-Places,” 7258X, 1832. Illustrations for some of these survive in the Patent Office records, but usually not the accompanying text. However, some of it – Nott's principles for burning anthracite, communicated to the author – is reproduced in a pamphlet by Dennis G. Littlefield of Troy, who perfected a generation later the stove type that Nott claimed to have invented, and made it fully practicable – A History of the Improvements Applicable to the Base Burning or Horizontal Draught Stove, ... by the Inventor of the Railway Coal Burner, Parlor Furnace, &c. (Albany: C. van Benthuysen, 1859), pp. 14-16. Financial transactions between Nott and the firm are detailed in Reply of the Trustees of Union College, to Charges Brought Before the Assembly of New-York, March 19, 1850; and before the Senate, on the 12th of April 1851, by the Hon. J.W. Beekman (Albany: Chas. Van Benthuysen, 1853), pp. 88-90.

3 McLane Report, Vol. 2, p. 115; “Water Tube Steam Boiler,” 4772X (1827), “Steamboat Furnaces, Boilers and Chimneys,” 8791X (1835), and “Steam-Boiler Furnace,” 9521X (1836), for his steamboat work, which resulted in the famous “Novelty” in 1836, and the movement of Nott & Co.'s headquarters to New York -- 'Archimedes,' "Mechanical Improvements -- Novelty Works," Mechanics Magazine and Register of Inventions and Improvements [New York] 6:4 (Oct. 1835): 187-8; "Notes and Notices," Mechanics' Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette [London] No. 681 (27 Aug. 1836): 368.

4 E. Morrison [New York] to Samuel G. Wright, 5 Dec. 1829, Box 3, Folder 16, Wright Papers, for 1830's planned output. Nott's suppliers included the Reading and Windsor furnaces in Berks County, PA, and Gloucester Furnace in New Jersey -- "Iron Manufactures," Hazard's Register of Pennsylvania 12:6 (10 Aug. 1833): 87-88; Charles S. Boyer, Early Forges and Furnaces in New Jersey (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1931), p. 74. Nott's stove castings from the mid-Atlantic furnaces would not necessarily have had to be carried to Albany. As he had markets and wholesale agents in the major seaboard cities, the more normal and sensible course would have been for castings to be sent straight from the furnaces to the manufacturer-dealers, who finished and assembled the stoves themselves. It is also possible that some of these furnaces may in fact have been Nott's licensees, paying for the right to use his patents, patterns, and name, but doing business on their own account; or the wholesalers may have been the licensees, with a right to do business in a particular market, and getting their own plate cast at the furnaces with copies of Nott's patterns. The lack of surviving records means that we will never know, but all of these arrangements were common at the time.

5 These patents, 7635X-7645X, all filed on 29 June 1833, do survive, recapitulating most of his earlier work, which is probably why the latter were not restored after the Patent Office Fire; but the records are very mixed up – illustrations and descriptions are often mismatched. For Nott's victory over Troy stove-inventor Sylvester Parker and award of $2,550 damages, see “Infringement of a Patent Right,” New England Farmer 11:33 (27 Feb. 1833): 261, and for his later [May 1834] decisive triumph over James Wilson, who had by then gone bust, see Hislop, Eliphalet Nott, pp. 268, 270. For the Nott stove's defects, see William J. Keep, “History of Heating Apparatus” (1916), pp. ##, unpublished manuscript, Baker Library, Harvard Business School -- Keep was a Union College alumnus who became one of America's leading stove designers and an expert on the industry's history; he actually owned an original Nott stove, given him by his old Principal, and understood its operating problems from experience.

6 For the Nott stove's style, see “Anthracite-Coal Stove Pipe,” Patent 7643X (1833) and, critically, Mary H. Shaffner, “Old American Stoves,” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum 5:19 (July 1907): 45-46 – it was “covered with meaningless, conventional design, over-ornate, and showing the debasement of art which prevailed during the early years of the nineteenth century” [p. 46]. For the “Gothic Car,” see Arthur J. Weise, History of the City of Albany (Albany: E.H. Bend, 1884), p. 471; for the neoclassical style that Gothic displaced, “The United States Branch Bank,” The City Record, and Boston News-Letter 1:1 (5 Nov. 1825): 6-7, quote p. 7.

7 Ralph L. Rusk, ed., The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), Vol 1, p. 342; Edwin Williams, New-York As It Is, in 1834: And Citizens' Advertising Directory (New-York: J. Disturnell, 1834), p. 239; Charles Varle, A Complete View of Baltimore (Baltimore: Samuel Young, 1833), p. 161; Resolves of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Boston: Dutton & Wentworth, 1834), p. 705. Nott's Baltimore (John Gable) and Boston (H.H. & F.H. Stimpson) agents were both also well-established Delaware Furnace and Millville customers, and the leading wholesalers in their respective cities. “Recent Patents,” The London Journal and Repertory of Arts and Sciences; and Repertory of Patent Inventions 7:46 (1836): 311-14 [the British patents were taken out in November 1830 through December 1831, indicating how long Nott stayed]. There is an excellent illustrated account of the design and operation of Nott's stove in his own words, sent by him to John C. Loudon, the influential British architect and taste-maker, in Loudon's Encyclopædia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture and Furniture (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1836 ed.), pp. 1030-3.  Nott was probably seeking Loudon's endorsement; he certainly received it, pp. 702-3.  This material remained in subsequent editions for at least a decade.

8 William A. McVickar, The Life of the Reverend John McVickar, S.T.D. (New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1872), pp. 202-7 for McVickar's journal of his visit, 261-5 for details of his gift; “Hospice of St. Bernard. From the New York American,” Niles' Weekly Register 8:20 [4th series] (13 July 1833): 335-6, for the original published version.

9 Francis Lieber, The Stranger in America: Or, Letters to a Gentleman in Germany: Comprising Sketches of the Manners, Society, and National Peculiarities of the United States (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1835), pp. 217-8; McVickar, Life, pp. 264 for “pulsations” quote, 265 for Fenimore Cooper; 'An American' [James Fenimore Cooper], Sketches of Switzerland (Philadelphia Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1836), Vol. 2, pp. 143-7, for his own account of his visit, and The Headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A Tale (New York: James G. Gregory, 1864; first published 1833), a novel as gothic as Nott's stove, based on his Swiss travels but set in 1730, when the Monks of St. Bernard and their great rescue dogs were more suitably picturesque.

10 "American Patents for June, with Remarks," Journal of the Franklin Institute 12:6 (Dec. 1833): 395-415 at pp. 404-7 [quotation p. 404]; “America,” The Court Journal: Gazette of the Fashionable World [London] No. 305 (28 Feb. 1835): 144; Luke Hebert, The Engineer's and Mechanic's Encyclopaedia (London: Thomas Kelly, 1836), Vol. 1, p. 535; “Nott's Patent Stoves,” The Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal [London] 1:6 (April 1838): 146; Andrew Reed and James Matheson, A Narrative of the Visit to the American Churches, by the Deputation from the Congregational Churches of England and Wales (London: Jackson & Wolford, 1835), Vol. 1, p. 344 [quote]; Nott Stove Company advertisement, The Times 6 Nov. 1845, p. 11.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Daniel Pettibone, "Inventor" of the Warm-Air Furnace

I've decided that I may as well carry on with extracting the "stories of invention" / "biographies of inventors" that I decided to employ as one of the key tools I would employ in order to attempt to make the evolution of stove types both comprehensible and even a bit interesting.  My aim was to (a) focus on some of the most important of the hundreds of stove patents and explore them in some detail, and (b) attach names and lives, occasionally even characters, where the materials are available, to what might otherwise be a rather dry, old-fashioned sort of history of technology narrative. Daniel Pettibone (b. Goshen, Connecticut, 1743) was perhaps the American inventor of a device that played an increasingly important role in warming homes and public institutions through the early nineteenth century, and was the first practicable form of central heating system as well as the most common. This is taken from Chapter 1 of my book MS, "Origins: from Benjamin Franklin to the War of 1812." Like most of my recent posts, it needs to have the illustrations already present in the chapter draft re-imported, and also to have hyperlinks to primary and secondary sources inserted, wherever they are available, in order to add the greatest amount of value in the migration from old-fashioned text to blog post.

* * * 

Daniel Pettibone was a peripatetic skilled metalworker (basically a sword- and gun-smith) and serial inventor – a “mechanician,” as he called himself -- claiming fifty-six distinct inventions between 1796 and 1812, for five of which he took out patents. His career in those years took him from the Springfield Armory via Pittsfield and Boston, Massachusetts, Walpole, New Hampshire, Middlebury, Vermont, Hartford and Roxbury, Connecticut, New York and Albany, until by about 1807 he arrived in Philadelphia, where he was employed as an arms inspector at the federal armory and, in the run-up to the War of 1812, as a contractor. He was therefore familiar with the patent system as a hoped-for road to riches, and also with the federal government as a source of employment and custom. Alongside his many claimed innovations in techniques of precision metalworking, especially for weapons manufacture, he had developed a “ship's camboose with many advantages” at Albany, in 1803; at Hartford, the following year, a “furnace or stove, made of iron or copper, with a grate consisting of hollow bars” (to increase heat transfer into the room via currents of warmed air); in 1805, a modification for “pots, kettles, or boilers” to improve the efficiency of heat transfer from fire to pot; in 1806 another, for tin kitchens (reflector ovens), by insulating them; and finally, in 1807, he developed the “rarifying air-stove” which provided him with his main claim on posterity, as the inventor of the first successful, large-scale central-heating systems in the United States. (Figures #1.8-1.9)1

Pettibone thought this claim should be quite a large one:

In all states and empires, in the ratio of the increase of population, so is fuel, in general, proportionally diminished – therefore, in domestic and public economy, fuel may be esteemed as one of the most essential and important items. Hence, he who can, by his improvements and inventions, save the consumption of fuel, and at the same time, gain an additional quantity of heat, is highly entitled to the patronage of mankind, and is more deserving of a monument, erected to his memory, than the soldier who has slain his thousands.2

Pettibone's achievement was rewarded with no such monument, but he left a solid record in the basements of public buildings and upper-class mansions in the cities and towns of the East Coast from Washington to Boston. The heart of his system eventually consisted of a furnace built of brick and iron, the latter functioning as a heat-exchanger to warm a current of fresh, outside air which was then conveyed through insulated sheet-iron ductwork to as many rooms and floors of a building as necessary, and as the system's capacity permitted. (Figure #1.10) “The largest rooms may be heated with these stoves; and the rooms may be raised, by them, to the warmest temperature, and readily varied. The air, thus warmed, is agreeable and pleasant – kept in circulation by a constant supply of fresh air – is perfectly salubrious; agreeing with the most delicate constitutions, and lungs of the greatest sensibility.”3

Figure #1.9. Pettibone's original basement furnace mounted on a modified six-plate stove. (Pettibone, “Fire Place,” Patent 947X, 1808, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.)
Figure #1.10. Pettibone's basement furnace, 1810-1812 – containment vessel optionally of sheet iron or brick. (Pettibone, “Rarefied Air Stove,” Patent 1731X, 1812, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.)

It is impossible to know how many of Pettibone's heating and cooking inventions were ever translated into practice, leave alone successfully commercialized; as a later inventor complained about his hollow grate bars, which still prevented a successful patent claim for a superficially similar device almost forty years later, nobody had ever heard of them, and they would not have functioned as intended anyway. But the rarifying air-stove, at least, did work well. It was not the first warm- or hot-air furnace in the United States (there had been failed experiments, notably to heat Congress Hall in Philadelphia with a basement furnace, as well as Evans's “Philosophical and Ventilating Stove”). It was certainly not the first in the North Atlantic world – William Strutt of Derby, England, member of the celebrated Birmingham Lunar Society, had since 1792-93 successfully heated a fireproof textile mill building from a single furnace very similar to Pettibone's. But we need not doubt Pettibone's claim not to know of any significant work or successful installations before his own, as Strutt neither published nor patented his system, and in any event Pettibone's frame of reference was almost exclusively American.4

Pettibone's was not a single device, it was more a family of improvements applicable and adaptable to a variety of circumstances where large-scale heating and ventilation was required, as his pamphlets' impressively sprawling subtitles indicate: between the first and second editions, it grew from being a Description of his Improvements of the Rarefying Air-stoves to embrace other heat-generating and -distribution devices (Grates, Tubes, Pipes, Cylinders, or Open Stoves, or Common Fire Places, made of Iron, Stone, Brick, Potter's Clay, &c., &c.), and its range of actual or potential uses extended beyond Warming and Ventilating Hospitals, Churches, Colleges, Dwellinghouses, Hot or Greenhouses, Manufactories, Banks, Barracks, Ships, &c, to include Courts of Justice, Ovens, Drying Rooms, Gun-Powder or other Manufactories, ... Malt-Kilns, &c., & c., With or Without the Application of Steam. Even that list of applications was incomplete, given that his fertile mind also spun off improvements in, amongst many others, cooking stoves, fruit dryers, and large-scale biscuit-baking apparatus, none of which he failed to mention.

But what connected all of his innovations together was a commitment to the more efficient use of heat, and the core of his work was the devising of economical solutions to the challenge of warming the large-scale public spaces and institutions then proliferating across the urban north-east as a result of growing prosperity and population. A key feature of his promotional pamphlets was the inclusion of testimonials from satisfied customers including the Pennsylvania Hospital, which saved two-thirds of its firewood bill, the Almshouse and House of Employment, the Free School, and the Philadelphia Bank, and from members of the city's scientific élite (including Oliver Evans himself). On the strength of endorsements like these, and good personal and political connections, notably with William Thornton, first superintendent of the U.S. Patent Office and architect of the Capitol, and his successor in the latter post, Benjamin Latrobe, Pettibone rapidly gained some of the most prestigious public commissions available. He provided a furnace for the White House in 1809, a stove for the office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives in 1813, and finally secured a potentiallylucrative contract to heat the House chamber itself, whose “atmosphere [was] injurious to health, and ... rendered it impossible for [members] to keep their seats long at a time,” presumably because of the inadequacy of Latrobe's own equipment, installed in 1806 and modified in 1808. The chair of the committee recommending the fitting of a Pettibone system, Jonathan Moseley of Connecticut, perhaps not coincidentally from Pettibone's original home district, accepted that $2,000 was a lot of money “when, certainly, we have no super-abundance of public treasure. But ... the nation would not regret the employment of a small sum for the purpose of purifying the atmosphere of the house; as it might have a good effect upon the mental vision of the members, as well as their health.”5 (Moseley was a member of the Federalist minority.)

Pettibone's system functioned satisfactorily from 1818, when it was finally installed (the War of 1812, and British sack of Washington, had delayed the work), until its replacement in the late 1850s. Latrobe's student Robert Mills, “the founding father of American architecture,” introduced Pettibone's equipment, which he manufactured under license, into a wide range of residential, commercial, and institutional settings in Baltimore from 1815-16 onwards. A Pettibone stove was installed as far north as Albany's Lancastrian School in 1816; and one of Pettibone's rivals, Jacob Perkins, had already fitted a very similar system, burning Rhode Island anthracite, in the Massachusetts Medical College's building in Boston in 1815.6

In the space of a very few years, a quiet revolution in central heating had thus swept up and down the East Coast. It had the potential to transform the American indoor climate. The days of having your fore parts roasted and your butt half-frozen were over, for those able to afford it, and the way people could use domestic space in wintertime changed profoundly. As Pettibone rightly argued, “rooms are equally warmed, so that people may sit near a window and have the benefit of the light, for reading, writing, and needle work. If you sit against a crevice, there is not that sharp draft of cold air playing on you, ... by which many catch cold; whence proceed coughs, catarrhs, tooth-aches, fevers, pleurisies, and many other diseases.” This even comfort was “especially ... congenial” for “people of consumptive constitutions,” a key selling point in a city like Philadelphia where “consumption” was the commonest recorded cause of death, accounting for one-sixth of the total number.7

But beyond the larger towns and cities and, even within them, outside of the houses of a few of the rich and some of the public institutions that they controlled, in the short term Pettibone's revolution had no effect. Most Americans were still dependent on open fires using wood for fuel; and, even if they lived in the seaboard regions where the transition from fireplaces to stoves was proceeding the fastest, the simple Franklin, six-plate box, or ten-plate remained their appliance of choice.8

Where Pettibone's ideas led -- bourgeois comfort from a basement furnace. Catalogue of John Grossius, Inventor and Manufacturer of Patent School House Ventilating Stoves, and Warm Air Furnaces, Registers, &c., Cincinnati, Ohio, 1876, p. 21.
A technology that survived and developed well into the Twentieth Century -- Healthful Heat from a Homer Original Patented Pipeless Furnace (Homer, MI: The Homer Furnace Co., c. 1920), p. 12.

1 “Ancestors of Daniel Pettibone” (2006),; Harold L. Peterson, The American Sword 1775-1945 (Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Pubs., 2003), p. 24; Heritage Auction Galleries, “Exceedingly Rare Daniel Pettibone Cast Steel Horseman's Saber Ca. 1808-1812,”; Merritt R. Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 97; Daniel Pettibone, Pettibone's Economy of Fuel (Philadelphia: A. Dickinson, for author, 1812), pp. 43-47. This is a revised and reformatted version of his original Description of the Improvements of the Rarifying Air-Stove (Philadelphia: The Author, 1810), but the only substantial changes are in the introductory and appendix sections. The core of the 1810 pamphlet became the text of his 1812 patent, 1731X, a monster containing the ten pages of illustrations of equipment and stylized installations which did not make it to the printer in time for publication in his 1812 edition, though they are referred to there, as well as fifteen tightly-packed manuscript pages. 1731X had developed from his original 1808 patent 947X, which had just two pages of illustrations (for an open fire place heating an upper room via an iron air-chamber behind the fire, with an external fresh air supply, and a basement furnace obviously adapted from a six-plate stove, with an iron air-chamber and heat-exchanger above it; see Figures #1.8-1.9) and three of text – 115 vs. 5,532 words.  [Pettibone's pamphlets aren't freely available yet through the Evans Text Creation Partnership, but well-funded libraries should have either the old microform or subscriptions to the digitized version.] 

2 Pettibone, Description, pp. 28 (petition to the House of Representatives to buy his system, 2 June 1808) – and 18.

3 Pettibone, Description, p. 28. There is a picture of a later Pettibone-inspired system in Orville W. Carroll, “A Signed and Dated 1851 Furnace in Rome, New York,” Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 3:4 (1971): 89-92.

4 H. Pollard, "Construction of Chimneys," Scientific American 5:29 (6 Apr. 1850): 227; Morris A. Pierce, "Urban Technological Systems Before Edison: Steam Heat and Power in Philadelphia," November 1993,; Robert Bruegman, "Central Heating and Forced Ventilation: Origins and Effects on Architectural Design," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 37:3 (Oct. 1978), pp. 143-160 at pp. 144-6; Pettibone, Pettibone's Economy of Fuel, pp. 17-18.

5 The White House Historical Association, “Timelines: 1800s Technology,”; U.S. Congress, House, Journal of the House of Representatives, 12th Congress, 2d Sess, 2 Mar. 1813 (Washington, DC: Gales & Seaton, 1826), Vol. 8, p. 725; Pettibone, Description of the Improvements, pp. 30-31, quotations from House of Representatives debate, 16 Jan. 1810. It would be nice to think that Congressman Moseley had read Richard Tickell’s humorous poem on the beneficial effects on public life to be anticipated from introducing a “potent wonder-working stove” (a Buzaglo, like Virginia’s House of Burgesses’) into the House of Commons, moderating the heat of factional conflict stimulated by the effects on honorable members’ character of too much cold air -- "The Project. To the Dean Tucker," Epistle 11 in Bell's Classical Arrangement of Fugitive Poetry (London: John Bell, 1793), Vol. 4, pp. 92-101, quotation p. 100. For an independent endorsement of the superiority of (the author's preferred modifications of) Pettibone's appliances for institutional and domestic heating, see William P.C. Barton, A Treatise Containing a Plan for the Internal Organization and Government of Marine Hospitals in the United States: Together with a Scheme for Amending and Systematizing the Medical Department of the Navy (Philadelphia: The Author, 1814), pp. 52-60.

6 Pierce, “Urban Technological Systems before Edison”; John M. Bryan, Robert Mills (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), pp. 121-22, 126, blurb [quotation]; Joel Munsell, The Annals of Albany, Vol. 6 (Albany: J. Munsell, 1855), p. 113 – the cost was $91; "Account of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts," from the New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery, April, 1816, in The Monthly Repository vol. 15, no. 177 (September, 1820), pp. 501-9 at pp. 507-8. William Meyer, “Harvard and the Heating Revolution,” New England Quarterly 77:4 (Dec. 2004): 588-606, explains the college's slow and patchy follow-up to this pioneering step.

7 Pettibone, Pettibone's Economy of Fuel, p. 41; Pettibone, “Improvement of the Rarifying Air Stove,” U.S. Patent 947X, 1808.

8 In the early 'teens some New England communities far from the iron-making regions also experimented with “Russian stoves,” built of brick and working on heat-retention principles, so theoretically highly efficient – Amos Eaton, Chemical Instructor: Presenting a Familiar Method of Teaching the Chemical Principles and Operations of the Most Practical Utility (Albany: Webster & Skinners, 1822), p. 48; Samuel F. Gray and Arthur L. Porter, The Chemistry of the Arts: Being a Practical Display of the Arts and Manufactures which Depend on Chemical Principles (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1830), Vol. 1, pp. 125-6. See Felt, Annals of Salem, vol. 2, pp. 182, 621, on their introduction by a local mariner and manufacturer, Solomon Towne, in 1811; John Preston, Every Man His Own Teacher; or, Lancaster's Theory of Education, Practically Displayed (Albany: Author, 1817), p. 34, endorsing an Albany firm's improved version, promising to save 90 percent of the fuel required by an open fire; Elijah B. Huntington, History of Stamford, Connecticut: from its Settlement in 1641, to the Present Time (Stamford: Author, 1868), pp. 304-6, on the replacement of the Russian stove in the Congregational meetinghouse by an iron stove in 1817 – i.e. this technology was tried out during the War of 1812 but quickly superseded, a point made explicitly in George W. Chase, The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, from Its First Settlement, in 1640, to the Year 1860 (Haverhill: Author, 1861), pp. 483-4 – Haverhill had followed Salem's example. Brick could be sourced locally, while the supply of cast-iron stoves was dependent on coastwise shipping – a problem during the War.