Alice H. Parker

Who she was

Alice H. Parker (1895? to 1920?) was an African American woman from Morristown, NJ… we think. Little is known about her early life. She reportedly attended Howard University Academy, a high school attached to the historically Black university, and graduated with honors at the age of 15. [1]

What she did

She invented the cornerstones of modern central heat, the gas furnace and individually adjustable heating ducts. The application for her patented gas furnace invention was filed in 1919. The next time you hear your heating system come on, think of Alice. Thank you, Ms. Parker! [2]

From the patent application of Alice H. Parker


Why it mattered

Although her designs were not used, her patent filing was a remarkable achievement. The concept of using natural gas combined with a central heating duct system had never before been proposed, and this technology would turn out to be a safe and efficient way to heat modern homes. Other central heat systems existed at the time, but were powered by coal or wood. [3]

How history did her wrong

Although she is now recognized as “the mother of modern heating”, at the time she never received credit for her invention, or compensation for the ideas it blatantly inspired. [2]

Worse, the photo that accompanies nearly every Internet article with her name is not even her, and is actually of an unrelated white woman. [4]

The date of her death–or maybe even birth–is unknown. According to her Wikipedia article (“citation needed”), it is thought she died in 1920 “due to a fire or heat stroke” (two very different things). [3] If so, she died at the age of 25—or maybe 35, since another article said she was born in either 1885 or 1895” [2]

A Black History Month “Energy News” article by Audrey Henderson delves into why we know so little about such an important figure [4]:

“It’s consistent with things that I’ve certainly learned about and read about as it leads to record-keeping of Black history in this country, when we think about who gets to tell the story — who gets to tell history,” said Dr. Rabiah Mayas of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. “And when people are not allowed the power to tell their own histories, to document their own legacies, we know that there are huge gaps in what any of us have access to.”  — Energy News