These days, I don’t know many people in this business who don’t have all the world’s knowledge in their pockets. They’re forever checking their smartphones for this and that. Just the other day, someone asked me if I knew of a good app for sizing gas lines. I wondered why the guy didn’t use a paper version for that. Remember? We used to have these charts. Some people still do, in fact. But, then, I realized that paper is so 20th century.

Not that I’m trying to get in touch with my inner fogie here or go all Luddite on you — I love today’s technology as much as anyone, but I still keep a dusty copy of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary on the shelf over my desk. Sure, I haven’t opened in it years because it’s much easier and faster for me to Google a word when I need to check it, but that book has such a nice maroon color, and it smells like knowledge, so I’m keeping it.

I work in a room filled with the dead. Their books, some dating to the early-1800s, look down on me. I often open them to get reacquainted with their writers. Those people are remarkably patient with me. They never ask for attention. They just stand side-by-side and wait until I need them, and they are always there for me.

In my three filing cabinets there are handwritten and typed notes by the dead. Much of those notes have to do with job proposals and tricks of the trade. There is also a lot of old product literature in those cabinets with photos of a time long gone. Sometimes when I see the machines in those catalogs still operating in the field, I always smile. We live in a heating museum.


One of those folders in the cabinet on the left contains a bunch of what I think of as cardboard apps. These are the sizing calculators the dead men carried in their pockets when telephones still had slots for nickels.

Here, for instance, is a 5 1/4-inch round hot water capacity calculator from John Wood. Noted under the company name, it says it has been around since 1867. How about that?

The calculator has three circular sections and these instructions:

• Locate on outer dial your laundry equipment;

• Set opposite the laundry equipment the kitchen equipment you have;

• Set the number of people in your family opposite the number of baths; and

• Read gallons opposite personal factor. This is for peak hot water family requirements. To determine the required heater size, see the table on the back of the calculator.

That’s simple, but it only allows me to have five people in the family, which made me wonder because, back when contractors were using this cardboard app, people probably had more kids than they do today, so I’ll set that one aside and look at this other cardboard app. This one is from A.O. Smith, and it allows for eight people in the family (which may be the key to its success). Its cardboard app, which is, when folded, exactly the size of my iPhone, tells me to:

• Select the appliance and bath column for your home;

• Match the dot to that column; and

• Read gallons required for number of people in your family.

Isn’t that easy? And I don’t have to plug in either of these or get within range of a signal to use them.

In 1959, General Industrial Co. of Chicago gave away a 4-inch round, honest-to-goodness slide rule. It’s not for sizing water heaters. It’s just a slide rule, but I’ll bet if you handed this to a teenager, he wouldn’t be able to tell what it is, even though it says slide rule right on the front. Huh?

Or, how about this one from Waterfilm Boilers of Jersey City, New Jersey? It was 1953 and they were selling Koven Trimrad baseboard radiators. They gave away a plastic-and-cardboard app about the size of a Samsung Galaxy S5. It calculated heat loss and sized the baseboard. All you needed to do was dial in the cubic contents of the room, the square footage of glass, and the square footage of the exposed walls.

No questions were asked about what was inside the walls or what sort of glass made up those windows. They probably wanted to make life as simple as possible for the contractors, which may be why you’ve never heard of them.

In 1954, American Standard Products came out with a 6 ½-inch round Profit and Overhead Calculator. Watch this:

• Step 1: Set the total of all overhead expenses opposite total sales in the little window. Read the overhead percentage. Turn the wheel over;

• Step 2: Set the red arrow: total direct costs (labor and materials) for job. Add to this the overhead percentage from the other side, your desired profit, and you have the selling price of the job.

Do you think they knew how to figure all the overhead in those days? Me neither.

American Standard Products also had a heating calculator. It, too, arrived in 1954, which was a big year for cardboard apps. It was better than the one from Waterfilm Boilers because you had to slide to whether the building had single- or double-glass windows and you had to consider infiltration. Once you slid all that into place, you’d select both your boiler (there are five choices) and your Heatrim baseboard radiators. This app is about the size of two pieces of white bread, side-by-side. Nice.

In 1956, American Standard Products kicked it up a notch with its Residential Comfort-Conditioning Calculator (round of applause, please). Now, consider how many houses were going up in 1956, when all those babies were booming. This cardboard app goes into much more detail when figuring the heat loss. It’s still the size of the white bread, but now it wants to know a lot more details about construction, which makes sense since the contractor was probably using this one for new homes rather than old homes.

Crane, not to be outdone, offered a cardboard app (two-slice-white-bread size) that asked questions similar to American Standard Products and then came up with how many feet of their cast-iron baseboard you’d need to use.

I figure this one got used less often, since we all know the way baseboard really gets sized is to measure the walls and then install the baseboard to fit along those walls.

And then, of course, there was Bell & Gossett’s (B&G’s) system Syzer, credited to my teacher, the late, great Gil Carlson. When I was working with contractors in New York City and Long Island, I would not leave home without that delicious, dessert-plate-sized plastic app. I used it constantly, and now I’ve learned B&G has replaced Gil’s wheel with an electronic app. That’s nice, but I’m keeping my old one because it works just fine and comes with many sweet memories.

As each of these cardboard and plastic apps showed up, I’m sure contractors were thrilled. Heck, I still smile every time I look at them. I think about how many hands must have touched these things before they came to me, how many jobs they helped size, and how many problems they helped solve. Think of all the time they saved.

And not one of them needed a battery.

Publication date: 6/8/2015

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