Alice H. Parker was an African-American inventor who filed the first United States patent for the precursor to a central heating system. Parker was highly educated compared to most Americans during the early 1900s. She was a graduate of Howard University, a historically African-American university that accepted both male and female students since its founding in November 1866, shortly after the Civil War. While little is known about her life, her design for a heating furnace is a definite forerunner to what was developed decades later as a means of heating residential and commercial structures.
Parker was officially granted her patent on December 23, 1919, while she was a resident of Morristown, NJ. The drawings included in the patent filing show a heating furnace that was powered by gas. To heat an entire house, there were several heating units, each controlled by individual hot air ducts. The ducts were then directed to different parts of the building structure.
Although this design was never used in an actual structure, using gas to power a heating furnace was a revolutionary idea since coal and wood dominated at this time. This patent also marks the first time that a patent documents the idea that duct work could individually deliver heat to different areas of the house.