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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.

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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 √©lite (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.

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