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Advanced Degrees: How the Thermostat Went from Simple to Smart

We take for granted how easy it is to control the temperature in our homes. We can maintain comfort with the push of a button – whether that button is on a sleek touchscreen display mounted on a wall or our smartphones, making it possible to adjust the temperature remotely.

And advancements in thermostat technology are making it easier still. Voice activation is the new frontier. You won’t even have to get up from your couch.

Of course, operating your heating or cooling system hasn’t always been convenient; in fact, it used to be downright difficult, requiring a homeowner to adjust the temperature at the source. Imagine waking up early – breath visible in the cold – to stoke the coal furnace in your basement. Not only that, you’d have to fuss with valves or dampers to set the desired temperature -- a method that was hardly precise.

Relief from this burden wouldn’t arrive until several inventors began marketing their solutions during what can only be described as the Great Thermostat Race of the Late 1800s.

The forefathers of temperature control

Scottish chemist Andrew Ure, a professor at the University of Glasgow, is credited for conceiving the first bi-metallic thermostat, receiving a British patent in 1830. His invention was intended to regulate temperatures in textile mills, improving conditions for factory workers. Though he helped pave the way for modern temperature control, Ure might be best known for his role in inspiring one of literature’s most terrifying creations: Frankenstein. Ure was one of several scientists of the time who conducted gruesome experiments to reanimate the dead using electricity.

Professor Warren Johnson further advanced the idea of remotely controlling the temperature in 1873. He devised an electric system with a mercury switch that rang a bell to notify the school’s janitor when the furnace needed adjusting. He then went on to develop a thermostat in 1885 that used compressed air to operate steam valves and, in 1895, a multi-zone temperature control system. His company, Johnson Controls, continues to make HVAC and smart home systems today.

Hot on the heels of Johnson’s compressed-air solution was Albert Butz’s battery-powered thermostatic control system. His regulator opened the damper on a boiler or furnace with a spring-loaded motor. Butz’s company later merged with Honeywell, Inc., which refined the thermostat further and is today a household name.

Around this time, William Powers began experimenting with vapor pressure to operate a draft damper in a furnace. The Powers Regulator Co. installed thermostats in the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. An original Powers Regulator should be coveted by steampunk enthusiasts everywhere. The solid brass thermostats measured 15 inches in diameter and were intricately adorned.

Getting with the program

Temperature control would make a big leap forward with the advent of the programmable thermostat in the early 1900s. One such product from the Jewell Thermostat Co. featured a wind-up clock to open and close dampers at set times.

Thermostats continued to evolve as coal-fired furnaces gave way to gas and oil heating systems, but from an aesthetic standpoint, these wall-mounted fixtures remained clunky and utilitarian for decades. Finally, their design took a radical, i.e. circular, turn in the 1950s when Honeywell, Inc. introduced The Round. Far less obtrusive than previous models, this neat little unit was an instant hit with homeowners and today remains one of the world’s most iconic designs, adorning more walls in households around the world than any other thermostat.

The digital revolution

In 2010, a couple of former Apple engineers decided to do for the thermostat what Steve Jobs did for the phone: completely revolutionize it. Co-founders Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers figured the thermostat, a device used to control about 50% of Americans’ energy bills about 10% of all U.S. consumption, was due for a shakeup. Their idea? A thermostat that learns.

The Nest was the first in a growing line of smart, WiFi-equipped thermostats that detect patterns – when people come, when people go – and adjust temperatures accordingly. Other popular models include the Ecobee Smart Si and the Honeywell Pro 8000. These units also allow users to change heating and cooling levels remotely from their smartphone, computer or tablet, monitor their energy usage and change settings easily. They even help HVAC service providers like Morrison Heating & Cooling track system run-times and temperatures to help diagnose any problems.

Temperature control doesn’t get any more modern than that.

Interested in upgrading to a smart thermostat? Contact Morrison Heating & Cooling at 503-683-7077.

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