Automatic Heating - An Old Phrase That Changed the Way We Live | Service Mark Solutions

Automatic Heating – An Old Phrase That Changed the Way We Live

Before World War I, most homeowners had hand-fired coal furnaces. They had to descend into a dark dingy basement and contend with coal shoveling, ash clearance, and a method of temperature control that was no more than “by guess or by gosh.”

Automatic firing of heating equipment was hampered by lack of widespread availability of electric power and reliable electric motors. Once the proper motors were available, inventors had to figure out how to apply them to the firing of home and industry heating systems. They also had to develop controls that would permit thermostats to directly control the equipment.

These efforts began after 1900, accelerating through the next two decades. During WWI, a coal shortage (caused in part to huge demand usage by the Navy) led to a government initiative to conserve energy which gave a push to automatic system development.

Shovel scooping up coal

Homeowners were used to going to great trouble and banking coal fires at night, waking up early to then stoke the fire with fresh coal, and then waiting for the slow and bulky heating systems to heat the home. Guesswork and experience dictated how much coal to use, but this was obviously wasteful. The first electric coal stoker that could be controlled by thermostat was placed on the market in 1912, and by the 1920s, automatic coal systems were available from many manufacturers. This started the Modern Era of home heating.

Night setback thermostats saw renewed interest. One using a wind-up clock had been brought out by Jewell Thermostat Co. in 1905. Sales of these devices surged during the First World War.

“Coal-less Mondays” were introduced in 1917, one year before the end of the war, stimulating the use of oil and gas. Milton Fessler invented a residential oil burner in California between 1905 and 1908. Before the war, there were several manufacturers of domestic oil burners; Underwriters Laboratories certified the first oil burner in 1912.

The first oil burner with a high-voltage electric ignition, called the “Electrol,” was introduced in 1918. By the mid-20s, the market for domestic oil burners skyrocketed. In 1924, the first controls designed exclusively for oil burners were marketed by Honeywell later to become an international leader in high tech controls!

Gas heating advanced as well. Frederic Albert Winslow was ridiculed in London in 1805 when he proposed that gas could be used for heating as well as lighting, and it was not until about 1840 that gas heating was attempted in the U.S. Sporadic attempts were made, especially in the western states where underground supplies of natural gas were plentiful and easy to access, but there was no real incentive to push the use of gas until the gas utility companies saw their revenues decline as electric lighting advanced after 1880.

Casting about for a way to increase gas use, they began to investigate the use of gas for heating. Ohio Gas Light Co. in 1891 installed gas heating systems in 50 homes as an experiment. After 1900, some furnace and boiler manufacturers added gas-fired equipment to their lines, but gas equipment didn’t really take off until the war. By that time electric gas valves had been developed, so the heating system could be readily controlled by thermostat. The need for uniform safety operation testing resulted in the establishment of the A.G.A. Testing Laboratory in Cleveland, OH, by the American Gas Association in 1925.

Use of natural gas was limited at first because of condensation problems in flues. The phenomenon was reported in trade literature as early as 1901, and condensation was apparently common enough that after a number of gas installations were placed in Buffalo, NY, it was reported that “almost every person has an iron pipe put into his chimney to carry off the water.” By the 1920s, the design application of gas-fired equipment was better understood.

Modern Heating for A Modern World

By the mid-1920s, heating could be said to have advanced to a pure form of democracy: Everyone could participate. Heating devices and systems had become relatively inexpensive and almost completely reliable. Their efficiency had been greatly improved.

One could avoid the basement for weeks at a time and safe, effective heat was only as far away as the nearest thermostat. The state of heating would advance at an even more astounding pace, such that our predecessors would stare in wonder at what has been accomplished.

By 1926, heating had advanced from the campfire to something so silent, automatic, and reliable that we simply take it for granted — we just “turn on the heat.” Our industry has succeeded in transforming heating apparatus into Walter Bernan’s “machines of society” Our day to day living world of comfortable homes, businesses, places of worship and shopping have been changed forever!

The team of expert maintenance, repair and installation technicians at ServiceMark Heating Cooling & Plumbing have been an important player in this changing environment and stays on top of all industry improvements and upgrades from Geo-thermal heating, where we use the energy below the ground to very efficiently heat and cool our homes, to thermostats that listen to your phone call and perform your commands!

With all the added comfort of our “automatic heating” world there can be problems that arise. ServiceMark stands by 24/7 to advise homeowners and perform emergency service in any weather and at any time. Call 800-474-5200 for fast results from the experts!

Thanks in part to our industry friends at for their contributions to this article.