Margaret Wilcox

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Margaret A. Wilcox (born 1838) was a native to Chicago, Illinois. She was known to be a mechanical engineer, a rare field of practice for women at the time, especially in view of the limited higher education options. Margaret Wilcox was a creative and experimental innovator with an entrepreneurial spirit. She sought to improve various aspects of life through her patented inventions that ranged from a combined clothes-and-dishwasher to a rail car/automobile heater system. Out of her nine patented inventions, her rail car/automobile heater system became one of her more renowned inventions. Despite becoming a widow by 1883, this would not inhibit Wilcox from pursuing a life in creating inventions. Particularly, Wilcox had a niche for developing heating systems for various applications in the kitchen and in transportation. After realizing that the aristocratic individuals suffered from frigid temperatures during colder months inside their rail cars, Wilcox sought to devise a way to heat the interior of rail cars, and specifically, the hands and feet of the aristocrats. Prior to the implementation of Wilcox’s heating system in rail cars and eventually automobiles, motorists were forced to dress in substantial, burdensome winter clothing. Additionally, motorists would utilize portable heating devices such as lanterns and gas lamps, which were inconvenient and hazardous given the possibility of ignition. The specific method in which Wilcox devised to heat the cabin of automobiles was to redirect and channel the heat from the combustion engine in rail cars and automobiles towards the cabin. Wilcox’s patent for the in-car heating system involved having a combustion chamber beneath the car, where pipes would run underneath the car dispersing the heated water to the part of the car that needed heating. Furthermore, Wilcox’s in-car heating invention sought to reduce the frost and condensation build up on the windows of rail cars to enable easier viewing and safer transportation.

Wilcox was remarkably able to independently patent her in-car heating system on November 28, 1893, which also happened to be the year of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, in which many other women innovators were designated their own building to showcase their unique inventions. At the exposition, one of Wilcox’s inventions (a combined cooking and hot-water-heating stove) was applauded by the Board of Lady Managers’ Patents Committee. While her in-car heating system was not on display at the exposition, it was of similar caliber to the inventions of fellow female showcasers, such as Josephine Cochran who presented her distinguished automated dishwasher.

While Wilcox did introduce the novel concept of an in-car heating system, her design did have some limitations that should be expected given her forward thinking and groundbreaking invention. Specifically, her design was predominantly oriented as a luxury option for riders of rail cars and automobiles, and given the technological limitations of the time, the car would take ample time to warm up properly. Subsequently, once warmed up, the cabin sometimes became unbearingly hot, where the inability to properly regulate and control the internal temperature of the car posed safety concerns for drivers and passengers.

Nevertheless, Wilcox’s invention would eventually and quite impressively be implemented in enclosed automobiles that began to be produced in the first decade of the 20th century, given enclosed automobiles like rail cars featured windows. It is believed that the first recorded automobile that successfully implemented an interior heating system based on Wilcox’s innovation was Ford’s Model A in 1929. Despite the inability to properly regulate the temperature of vehicles, Wilcox’s heating system would pave the path and be the inspiration for current contemporary climate control/heating systems in vehicles. Wilcox’s invention would later propel engineers at General Motors to develop a modern heater core in 1930, which relied on a radiator to transmit hot coolant from the engine to enable for the heat to be dispersed by a fan throughout the cabin. Essentially all contemporary cars have a heater core installed to enable for controlling the desired heating temperature within the passenger compartment. What has now become a universal and customary staple in all cars today, was set in motion back at the close of the nineteenth century by an inspiring and innovative tailblazer, Margaret Wilcox.


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