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Little is known about Alice H. Parker’s life or upbringing, most likely because women of color, especially Black women, were not documented sufficiently during her time.

Records suggests she was born in 1895 in Morristown, New Jersey, a town 40 miles east of New York. She would later enroll in Howard University Academy in the early 1900s and graduated with honors in 1910.

The Howard University Academy Commencement Program from 1910 lists Alice H. Parker of Clifton, Virginia, in its class roll.  Credit:Howard University Academy

Alice Parker grew up shivering in New Jersey winters

Parker’s idea for a heating system came from being cold during New Jersey winters when fireplaces did not effectively heat an entire home.

Coal and wood, commonly used to fuel heating models in the 19th century, were not readily accessible. So Parker chose gas because it was a safer, easily accessible alternative and did not require a fireplace.

So, with no training or experience in the field, Alice Parker designed a natural gas-fueled “new and improved heating furnace.”

It was the first time anyone had thought of using natural gas for home heating.

Her lifesaving invention played a key role in the development of the very heating systems we have in our homes today.  

On July 8, 1918, she filed the application for the patent, and on Dec. 23, 1919, the rest would be history.

US Patent No. 1,325,905

Parker perfected the central heating system

The earliest known media mention of Parker’s patent appears in the February 1920 issue of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP.

A roundup of notable accomplishments by African Americans called “the Horizon” includes the text: “Alice H. Parker, a graduate of Howard University, has been issued a United States patent for a heating furnace.”

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Parker’s patent was not the first for a gas furnace design, but it uniquely involved a multiple yet individually controlled burner system.

Parker’s design was unique in that it used natural gas, which saved time from chopping wood, and increased safety measures without a fire burning all night.

Although her exact design was never implemented due to concerns with the regulation of heat flow, her system was an important precursor to the modern heating zone system and thermostats as well. 

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Parker’s legacy endures with the annual Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Awards via the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

The award recognizes the contributions of women to innovation in New Jersey, Parker’s home state.  

Black women are not only counted out, many are not even counted

Much like Ellen Elgin, who has no identifiable photo, Alice Parker thrived in an overtly sexist and racist era with remarkable resourcefulness and creatively brilliance even while being overlooked by seemingly everyone who writes history books.

Due to the historical dismissal of Black women and their achievements, speculation and rumor sadly fill in the blanks of many chapters of her life.

Although there is no definitive proof, writer and researcher Audrey Henderson suggests it’s possible that the Alice Parker from the 1920 New Jersey census records is also the Alice H. Parker who obtained the “heating furnace” patent in 1919, despite the discrepancies between various accounts. 

A document from the U.S. Census Bureau shows 35-year-old Alice Parker of Virginia and 45-year-old Edward Parker of Canada as a cook and butler, respectively, in Morris County, New Jersey. 

Alice and Edward Parker from the 1920 census records were listed as Black domestic employees of a White man named George Fanning whose 60-acre farm was located in Boonton, just outside of Morristown, the county seat. 

As a cook living in a large house, Parker would have had ample motivation to design a multi-room furnace.

A number of sources state that Parker died in 1920 at age 24 or 25. However, January 1920 Census records obtained from the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center include a woman named Alice Parker listed as a 35-year-old cook — which would place her year of birth as approximately 1885.

Information in this article was obtained via MIT, Howard University, Energy News Network, and New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

Hailing from Charlotte North Carolina, born litterateur Ezekiel J. Walker earned a B.A. in Psychology at Winston Salem State University. Walker later published his first creative nonfiction book and has...

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