Plumbing and Mechanical

The Men Who Built Boilers

July 12, 2000


These are the Dead Men that PM columnist Dan Holohan holds in high esteem. They’re the tinkers and inventors who gave birth to an industry and comfort to a nation in their workshops. Few know their names or their deeds and that is our loss, but their contributions live on today in the work of every hydronic heating contractor.

Family Affair

The father and son team of Jacob Perkins and Angier Marsh Perkins were the first pioneers of the young hydronic heating field. Americans by birth, the elder Perkins traveled to England to study the newest technology. A quick study and talented craftsmen, Perkins proved the compressibility of water with his first invention the pressure gauge.

Granted, Perkins never intended to use his discovery in the service of heating homes. He first developed a steam powered gun, and then used the technology in the engraving business, specifically as a way to heat printing plates. It was Jacob’s son Angier who applied his father’s discovery to space heating.

The younger Perkins reasoned that steam heating would be more popular if the pipe size could be reduced and the amount of heat output increased. To accomplish these goals he created a sealed pipe system. He heated the water to a very high temperature to force it through a small pipe, about 1 inch in diameter. The trouble was no one manufactured tubing this small, so Perkins arranged to purchase the needed material from another British firm that was converting wrought iron gun barrels into gas tubing.

In 1831, Angier Marsh Perkins was awarded British patent No. 6146 for the first boiler and the expansion tube he invented along with it.

Another American had found his way to England — and to the younger Perkins’ side — in the 1830s to learn about this new science. Being from New England, Joseph Nason saw a bright future for this technology in his homeland. After learning the craft, he returned to Boston and went into business with his brother-in-law James Jones Walworth. Together, these two men installed some of the first steam and hot water heating systems in the new world. One of the most notable installations undertaken by the duo was a modification of the central heating system at the White House.

Family Man

Stephen J. Gold was devoted to his wife. Good thing, for this devotion inspired him to produce a low pressure, self-regulating steam heater that was safe for domestic use. Already an accomplished manufacturer of heating and cooking stoves, Gold was awarded U.S. Patent No. 11,747 in 1854 for "improvement in warming houses by steam." Gold proved that steam systems could be safe if they operated at low pressures and had reliable regulating devices.

Gold’s boiler was an upright, wrought iron shell boiler with a cast iron internal fire box. To hold the line on cost and make heating affordable for the average American, Gold riveted two thin plates of sheet metal together and made the first radiator. His simple device eliminated the need for coils or lots of costly wall piping.

Much like the Perkins family, Stephen Gold’s son Samuel followed in his famed father’s footsteps. The younger Gold studied his father’s design and envisioned a new way to build boilers. It was made of cast iron sections, flat, oblong boxes, placed in series, the end sections closing and completing the unit. No longer would every unit have to be built to order. Under Gold’s system, any size boiler could be made simply by adding sections. The sections also made it easy to fit units through the narrow doorways common in that day.

The Company Connection

Gold’s need for cast iron to manufacture his boilers convinced him to form a partnership with the foundry known as H. B. Smith Co. of Westfield, Mass. This partnership gave birth to a company that produced some of the brightest new talent in this young industry (and one that still endures today).

The next big talent to emerge at the H. B. Smith Co. was John Richard Reed Jr. as he became known. In 1878 Reed continued advancement in radiator design with a labor-saving piping arrangement and an overall smaller size. Reed was in good company during the late 1800s and the dawn of the new decade. Steam radiators and advancements in hot water heating technology would capture 750 patents between 1843 and 1930, with 147 being awarded in the 10 years between 1880 and 1890.

The other famed inventor of the time was John Henry Mills. Mills was a mechanical genius who was also a craftsmen, inventor, heating contractor, scientific investigator and engineering consultant. Mills opinion of himself, however, was much more modest. He describes himself as "a mechanic by trade, an amateur in the sciences, without the advantages of a liberal education." Formal education not withstanding, Mills became known as one of the best engineers in the science of heating and ventilating in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

He devised the Mills Rule for figuring radiation and computing heat loss. In the years between 1869 and 1874, he invented the Mills boiler. He also devised and patented the Mills System of overhead piping and downward supply, a system of steam piping that became the standard throughout the country.

Between 1888 and 1890 he penned what is arguably one of the most important books ever written, Heat. Science and Philosophy of Its Production and Application to the Warming and Ventilation of Buildings.

His genius and contributions to the science of hydronic heating are in a league with father and son Perkins, the senior and junior Gold and Joseph Nason. The difference between these men is that of temperament. Mills went at it alone, never founding a company, freelancing his talent to various sponsors, but he was exceptional in his commitment to the industry and to those that practiced its craft.

Like those who came before and those that followed, the science of heating is richer for the contribution of men like John Mills. These individuals built boilers and, in the process, changed the way of life for the new and emerging nation.

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