top of page

African American Contributions to the Plumbing and HVAC Industry: Celebrating Pioneers of Innovation

February is a significant month as it celebrates Black History Month, a time to recognize and honor the remarkable accomplishments of African Americans throughout history. In the plumbing and HVAC industry, there have been numerous Black innovators who have made groundbreaking contributions, revolutionizing the way we live and work. These pioneers defied odds, challenged stereotypes, and left an indelible mark on the industry. In this article, we will highlight the extraordinary achievements of Lewis Howard Latimer, Frederick McKinley Jones, Alice H Parker, David Nelson Crosthwait Jr, J.B. Rhodes, Dr. Robert Ellerston Shurney, and Adrienne Bennett. Their inventions and ideas have shaped the plumbing and HVAC industry, propelling it forward and improving the lives of countless individuals.

Lewis Howard Latimer: A Trailblazer in Invention

Lewis Howard Latimer, born in 1848, was the son of former enslaved people. Despite facing numerous obstacles, Latimer's determination and intellect propelled him to become one of the most influential inventors in history. His collaboration with renowned inventors Alexander Graham Bell, Hiram S Maxim, and Thomas Alva Edison further solidified his status as a pioneer.

While Latimer is primarily known for his contributions to the telephone and light bulb, he also made significant advancements in the plumbing and HVAC fields. In 1874, Latimer patented an improved water closet (toilet) system for train cars, enhancing sanitation and comfort during travel. Additionally, in 1886, he developed an evaporative air conditioner, a precursor to modern cooling systems. Latimer's inventions in plumbing and HVAC laid the foundation for future innovations in these industries.

Frederick McKinley Jones: Revolutionizing Refrigeration

Frederick McKinley Jones, born in 1893, overcame adversity and became one of the most influential figures in the HVAC industry. As a self-taught mechanic, Jones's passion for innovation and problem-solving led him to develop groundbreaking refrigeration technologies.

Jones's breakthrough came in 1937 when he conceptualized a portable air conditioning unit during a sweltering summer night. Recognizing its potential, he realized that this technology could revolutionize the transportation of perishable goods. Jones's invention paved the way for the creation of Thermo King, a company that specialized in portable refrigeration units for trucks, trains, and ships. His refrigeration units played a vital role in preserving food and medical supplies, particularly during World War II.

Alice H Parker: Shaping the Future of Home Heating

Alice H Parker, born in 1895, was a visionary inventor who revolutionized the way we heat our homes. In 1919, Parker patented a natural gas home heating system that incorporated individually controlled burners, a concept that laid the groundwork for modern heating zone systems and thermostats.

Parker's innovative design allowed homeowners to have greater control over their heating, improving energy efficiency and comfort. Although her contributions were significant, historical records about Parker's life are limited, indicating the challenges faced by women in that era. Nevertheless, her impact on the HVAC industry is undeniable, and her legacy is honored through the annual Alice H Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Awards.

David Nelson Crosthwait Jr: Advancing HVAC Technology

David Nelson Crosthwait Jr, born in 1898, was a prolific African American inventor in the HVAC field. With a Master's degree in Engineering, Crosthwait's expertise and innovative mindset led to numerous patents and groundbreaking advancements in heating systems.

Crosthwait focused on developing efficient heating equipment for larger buildings, such as his differential vacuum pump, improved thermostat control, and enhanced boiler design. These innovations were critical to improving the comfort and safety of occupants in commercial and residential spaces. His contributions were so significant that he was appointed to develop a heating system for the iconic Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

J.B. Rhodes: A Multifaceted Inventor

J.B. Rhodes, a resident of Kalamazoo, Michigan, was a highly versatile inventor with more than 200 patents to his name. While his inventions spanned various industries, his contributions to plumbing and HVAC were notable.

One of Rhodes's inventions, an attachment for a water closet, served as a precursor to the modern bidet. His innovative design incorporated a tube that could be used for spraying and washing, enhancing personal hygiene in bathroom fixtures. Rhodes's inventions, though not as widely recognized, played a significant role in advancing plumbing technology and modernizing equipment.

Dr. Robert Ellerston Shurney: Redefining Bathroom Experiences in Space

Dr. Robert Ellerston Shurney, born in 1921, made significant contributions to the plumbing industry in an unexpected environment: outer space. As a NASA aerospace engineer, Dr. Shurney played a pivotal role in developing a waste control system for the Skylab, the first U.S. space station launched in the 1970s.

In zero-gravity environments, astronauts faced unique challenges when it came to using the bathroom. Dr. Shurney's innovative thinking and design resulted in a waste control system that allowed astronauts to safely and hygienically attend to their bathroom needs. His invention not only improved the quality of life for astronauts but also paved the way for future advancements in space sanitation.

Adrienne Bennett: Breaking Barriers in Plumbing

Adrienne Bennett, born in Chicago, Illinois, shattered stereotypes as the first Black female master plumber in the United States. Her journey in the plumbing industry began when she was approached by a recruiter from the Mechanical Contractors Association of Detroit, who recognized her potential and sought to diversify the field.

Bennett faced numerous challenges, including bullying and harassment, throughout her career. However, her resilience and determination allowed her to persevere and complete the apprenticeship program, ultimately becoming a master plumber in 1987. Bennett's success inspired many and paved the way for greater diversity and inclusion in the plumbing industry.


The contributions of African American innovators in the plumbing and HVAC industry have shaped the way we live, work, and experience comfort. Lewis Howard Latimer, Frederick McKinley Jones, Alice H Parker, David Nelson Crosthwait Jr, J.B. Rhodes, Dr. Robert Ellerston Shurney, and Adrienne Bennett are just a few of the remarkable individuals who defied societal barriers and left an indelible mark on their respective fields.

Their inventions and ideas have revolutionized sanitation, transportation, heating, and even outer space. Their legacies serve as a testament to the power of innovation, perseverance, and the boundless potential of human ingenuity. As we celebrate Black History Month, let us honor and recognize these pioneers who have played a significant role in shaping the plumbing and HVAC industry as we know it today.

Image Credits


bottom of page