Published onApril 22nd, 2021
The More You Know: The History of Boilers
Most large buildings in New York City have a boiler system to provide heat and often hot water, too. You may take this for granted, but the development of the modern boiler is fairly recent and changed life for city residents in huge ways. Here’s a look at the history of boilers, in which New York figured prominently, much as the city did when electric lights were first used at the end of the 19th century in Manhattan.
What Is a Boiler?
A simple principle
Boilers have become quite complicated over the years. Also, today they are used for multiple applications. At their core, however, they operate on a simple concept. Fluid, usually water, is heated in a closed vessel until it can be used for hot water or as steam for power, heat, and other functions.
Steam is evaporated water, or water in its gas form as opposed to its liquid state. Water in a boiler can be heated by any number of methods, including gas, electricity, oil, or coal. Most commonly in New York City, piped gas is the fuel of choice.
Who Invented the First Boiler?
Historical records say that early forms of boilers existed in Ancient Greece and in Alexandria, where Egyptians also toyed with the idea. However, it wasn’t until the 17th century that boilers came into the mainstream. Frenchman Denis Papin engineered the first boiler with a safety valve in 1679. After that, boilers became more prevalent. At first, they were used on trains and ships, like the steamboats that chugged up and down the Mississippi River moving goods and passengers.
Boilers for transportation
Although most people probably think of boilers as a source of heat, steam power was first harnessed for transportation. Early boilers, such as the “Scotch marine,” were made of a steel shell and fired by coal or wood, which made clearing soot a frequent concern. The tubes inside the boiler were crude in comparison to today’s boilers, but these first mechanisms set the stage for the Industrial Revolution, both in Europe and in the United States.
Boilers in industry
As the development of the boiler continued, other applications were devised, including uses in various types of manual labor. For example, Englishman Thomas Newcomen’s steam-powered pump changed the mining industry by drawing water from mines, which was otherwise a backbreaking human task. James Watt capitalized on Newcomen’s invention and added a separate condenser that let his boilers run on considerably less fuel and primed the world for today’s steam boiler.
Steam heat boilers
Two inventions in the early 20th century led to the ultimate use of boilers to provide steam heat for homes, workplaces, schools, hospitals, and more. The first was low-pressure steam.
This more modern, functional steam heat isn’t notable merely because it is a convenience; it’s also safer than what was used in the past. Previously, steam boilers operated under extremely high pressure, making them dangerous.
Steam boiler accidents were not uncommon. In 1850, a boiler in the basement of the A.B. Taylor Manufacturing Company exploded, killing 63 people, collapsing the building, and incidentally ruining I.M. Singer’s prototype for what would eventually become the sewing machine as we know it today.
Therefore, the development of the sturdier cast iron boiler, which could house the creation of low-pressure steam, was a major turning point.
The other invention was the use of bent tubes instead of straight ones inside steam boilers. This permitted boilers to be more compact so they could fit into residential properties. Also, the bent tubes handle cold water feeds better.
When Did Boilers Become the Norm in New York City?
Steam systems for everyone
Not surprisingly, New York City was a hub in the development of modern-day boilers since it was so heavily populated and contained many residences and businesses in need of steam power and heat. Two founding fathers of contemporary boiler design were George Babcock and Steven Wilcox. They patented boiler systems as early as 1867, and in 1891, the pair formed the Babcock & Wilcox Company in New York.
In 1907, the Babcock & Wilcox Company merged with the Stirling Boiler Company of Ohio to manufacture a popular boiler that produced large amounts of steam with less fuel and effort than previous models required. As competition in the boiler market began to heat up, new designs replaced these early brick-encased models, and tube technology continued to improve through the late 20th century. Soon, nearly everyone had a boiler in their building.
Today, steam for heat, cleaning, disinfection, and other tasks is the norm in New York City. What was formerly the job of the New York Steam Company, founded in 1882 to provide steam to lower Manhattan, has been taken over by Consolidated Edison (AKA “Con Ed”). Con Edison’s Steam Operations division provides steam to thousands of residential and commercial customers in Manhattan whose buildings do not have their own private boilers.
Many Midtown office buildings, as well as famous public places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, use Con Edison steam. Anyone who has walked the city is familiar with the steam emanating from beneath the street. Residents can be cheered that this steam has replaced the ubiquitous chimneys that used to fill the sky above New York with unhealthy black chimney smoke.
Boiler technology continues to evolve. Conventional atmospheric burners, which use air from the atmosphere in the combustion process, are being replaced by power blowers that force air into the boiler burner with a mechanical blower. Also, new safety features are available that didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago, and today’s boilers are more efficient.
Call Calray Boilers for New Boiler Installation, Boiler Repair, and Maintenance
New York City’s hyper-local blue-chip boiler experts
If your boiler is a few decades old, it might be time to take advantage of a newer model that gives you fewer headaches and costs less to run. And, until an old boiler is replaced, regular maintenance is more important than ever to prevent boiler failure. Call us at 212-722-5506, or use our easy online form to schedule an appointment for us to look at your boiler.