What aggravated the teacher was the problem of keeping his classroom at an even temperature during cold weather. And in 1880’s Minnesota keeping warm without being too hot was a real trick given the technology available to heat a home, school, or business. And so it was that the need to monitor the steam heat from the furnace in the basement of the school by constantly adjusting the steam valves led to one of the modern world’s simplest yet most important inventions.
The real trouble was that the only way to adjust the classroom temperature was to first find and then tell the janitor to go down to the basement and tinker with the steam valves to change the amount of heat coming out of the furnace. Just as the students of today would not hesitate to complain of being too hot or too cold, the teacher’s students were not shy about stating their complaints about the room’s temperature. And no doubt, come test time or late in the day when students thoughts turned to leaving and going home, complain about the heat they did!
The teacher’s first solution was a system that would signal the janitor by ringing a bell to let the janitor know how he needed to adjust the steam valves. But the teacher did not stop with the just sending the janitor signals, as the janitor still had to be in the basement and adjust the steam valves to regulate the heat. All this took time, and the heat regulation took time once the valves had been adjusted under the best of circumstances. No doubt the electric annunciator system was a step forward but far from an ideal solution. So the teacher kept working on the problem and in 1885 patented a compressed air powered thermostat that could automatically adjust the steam valves of a furnace thereby eliminating the need of a janitor or anybody else to do the job manually. The need to control the heat in a classroom had led to the first room thermostat to be invented, leading to a whole new era of comfort not just for students and teachers, but for people everywhere in schools, homes offices, and buildings of all kind. No doubt it also must have made the janitor in the basement happy too, because up to that point he was wrong no matter what he did, as it was either to hot or too cold most of the time.
The teacher in this true life story reflecting the old adage that “necessity is the mother of all invention” was named Warren S. Johnson, a professor at the State Normal College in Whitewater, Minnesota. This author having been in Minnesota on a number of occasions, he can personally attest to the fact that the winters there can truly be cold. So it’s certain that Professor Johnson had his own and not just his student’s comfort in mind when he persistently worked to find a way to monitor the classroom’s temperature. After all, everyone in his classroom was subject to the same cycle of too hot and then too cold, the only difference being the tolerance of the individual to the fluctuations in temperature.
Johnson soon found a group of Milwaukee investors and incorporated a new venture to build and sell his newly invented thermostat products. His new company, Johnson Electric Service Company, manufactured, installed, and serviced systems to automatically regulate building temperature. The company was renamed Johnson Controls in 1974, a company today with over 170,000 employees and sales of over $42 billion dollars. Johnson Controls product line has grown over the years, in part by acquiring other companies, and today includes automobile interior designs, car seats, batteries, climate control, and facility management services for major corporations.
But Warren Johnson also liked automobiles, in fact he was a real horseless carriage enthusiast. The first Johnson vehicle was a steam truck the company built in 1901 for its own use. After an unfortunate incident in which the truck was loaded far beyond its capacity, a second truck was built. This was followed by two other trucks, two of which were built for other companies. Johnson soon went on to build a fleet of 8 steam powered vehicles for the Postmaster in Milwaukie, these being among the first specialty built mail vehicles in the United States. Another truck was built for the Pabst Brewing Company, Pabst being the beer that according to its advertising “that made Milwaukee famous”.
By 1905 Johnson expanded is vehicle line to automobiles by building steam limousines promoted as being for “touring in civilized countries by civilized tourists”. No mention was made of which countries in the world were considered to be civilized, but no doubt America made the list. Nor was it specified what criteria was used to distinguish a civilized tourist from and uncivilized tourist, but one would think having both the means and the inclination to buy one of the cars would go a long way to prove you belonged to the civilized group. In 1908 Johnson switched to gasoline powered cars, selling them under names like Empress and Elite. These were large, powerful, and defiantly upscale models, many built to custom orders. For example, a 1909 Johnson Landaulet (similar to a limousine but with a canvas top over the passenger area) listed for $3,500, the equivalent of something over $80,000 today.
Johnson continued to build a wide-range of commercial vehicles too, including a fire truck, a sightseeing bus, and ambulances. The car line was expanded to ten different models in 1911, with the five passenger 30 HP Special Touring car starting at $1,500. The entire line of Johnson automobiles were named the Silent Johnson in 1911. All the while the Johnson Company continued to build thermostats and related products, Johnson holding over fifty patents, most based on the harnessing and use of air, steam, or fluid power. In all truth, the Johnson automobile venture was far afield his thermostat business, but nonetheless successful, even if in something of a modest way. The total number of Johnson cars built is unknown, but the car was offered and sold on a national basis.
The Johnson automobile died with the death of Warren Johnson in December of 1911. Automobile trade magazines noted his passing, and in the naming of a successor to run the company. But it was quickly decided that the company should focus on its core business of automatic temperature control products. After all, Johnson had a competitor in a company that had started in Wabash, Indiana in 1906 that also produced temperature control systems. You may also have heard of that company – Honeywell, even though it never built automobiles.