By Bob Blake

On a recent chilly morning, I dialed my Subaru’s climate control – no longer called a “heater switch” – to a comfortable 74 degrees. At the same time, I warmed the seat with the flick of a button. Done! Now the car’s computer would maintain that desired temperature regardless of the outside air.

The modern car is a comfort cocoon that isolates us from our world. Air ride shocks and stabilizers smooth the road, the padded, heated seats warm and contour to our body shape and the 6-speaker sound system soothes our senses. 

Real automobiles are barely over a century old but creature comforts are light years ahead. The early “cars” were simply clattering wooden and metal boxes with streams of cold air pouring through the ill-fitting seams.

  Women deserve credit for many automobile inventions, including the windshield wiper, engine muffler and the first car heater. Margaret A. Wilcox, a Chicago mechanical engineer, received the 1893 U.S. patent (US 509415 A)for her automobile heater. This involved a suspended box that burned fuel oil to radiate warm air to the passengers. This involved circuitous plumbing and was not easily adapted to all cars. Her later inventions included a combined clothing and dishwasher machine.

Many early motorists snuggled with blankets and surrounded their blue toes with hot water bottles…a carry-over from winter buggy rides. The Clark Company of Chicago refined the “stay warm” idea with their 1902 box for pre-heated bricks layered in a contoured container… snuggly described as “covered with rich velvet plush and ventilated.” The economy one-person model was 4 bucks and the longer two-person (I guess, four-foot) model only $6 more. The company claimed the warm bricks would radiate heat for “three to five hours without flame, smoke or odor.”

Ford’s revolutionary Model A debuted in October, 1927 with a simplistic heater that warmed the outside air as it passed over the engine exhaust manifold. A few years later the South Wind Company devised a heater that burned raw gas from the carburetor to heat a small oven. A dash control regulated flow of gas and the temperature. It was gas logs for the car! Airplanes later adapted this simplistic method to warm cockpits. Over three million vehicles had these units by 1948. Other aftermarket add-on heaters circulating hot radiator water were also common. Finally the lowly heater became a standard automobile feature in the late 1950s. 

Present cars combine heating and air conditioning into a single airflow system. Once you set the desired temperature, the computer selects hot or cold air for a comfortable ride. But…despite all these improvements, I continue to voice one complaint: Why can’t they find a quick way to clear the ice off the windshield…without the plastic scraper that always crumbles in your freezing hand! Stay warm!