130 Years Later, the Inventors of the Room Thermostat Turn Up the Heat

By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

The room thermostat was born of the same parentage that so many modern conveniences share: necessity.

In late nineteenth century Wisconsin, a self-educated professor of science (but also of mathematics, drawing, and penmanship because, sure, why not) grew tired of interrupting his classes to repeatedly alert the school’s janitor that his classroom was too cold. Warren Seymour Johnson would spend three years creating the device we now recognize as the room thermostat. And coincidentally, Johnson’s kids weren’t allowed to touch that thermostat either.  

In 1883 Johnson was awarded a patent for his electric tele-thermoscope, and two years later founded The Johnson Electric Service Company, known today as Johnson Controls.

More than 130 years later, Johnson Controls has released a thermostat for the design-forward home. GLAS is a sleek, wall-mounted thermostat with an OLED touchscreen. GLAS allows you to remotely control temperature and will learn your temperature preferences and habits over time.

GLAS can be controlled from anywhere through its app, but also comes equipped with Microsoft Cortana voice command and can integrate with Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant.

GLAS was designed to put the thermostat at center stage once again with a fresh and modern perspective.”

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GLAS monitors energy use as well. The thermostat reports 24-hour equipment run time in hours as well as estimated energy savings. And thanks to the Cortana integration, GLAS can also remind you to change your air filter or schedule HVAC maintenance visits, set a timer, tell you the weather and traffic, set an alarm or a timer, and take a note or make a list.

Johnson Controls is not the first to market with a smart thermostat, of course. Companies like Nest, Honeywell, and Ecobee have had products on the market for years, but GLAS stands to break out with its indoor air quality monitoring feature. GLAS monitors and reports both indoor and outdoor air quality. Users can track tVOCs and carbon dioxide indoors, and monitor allergens, the UV index, and the air quality index outdoors.

“Home automation and climate control needs have changed dramatically, and with that in mind, GLAS was designed to put the thermostat at center stage once again with a fresh and modern perspective,” says Chris Eichmann, vice president, general manager of Johnson Controls told House Method. “Further, GLAS is the first smart thermostat of its kind to utilize a translucent OLED touchscreen display to control its functions from monitoring indoor and outdoor air quality to tracking energy savings.”

The history of the room thermostat

I say room thermostat because thermostats, as far at thermostat historians can tell, have been around since the early 1600s when Dutch engineer Cornelis Drebbel created a mercury thermostat to regulate the temperature of his chicken incubator, which he also is credited with inventing (along with the first submarine and, possibly, maybe, the compound microscope). OK, sure. Drebbel’s feedback mechanism worked with an air intake that controlled the amount of hot air passing through the incubator, and is arguably the original smart machine.

More than 200 years later, in 1830, Scottish physician and son of a cheesemonger Andrew Ure created a bimetallic thermostat to regulate the temperature of industrial water boilers, but it had some problems—it would bend and warp under heat. A problem in Industrial Revolution–era boiler rooms.

Johnson’s thermostat was different, not only was it electrical, Johnson’s device made it possible to automatically control temperature at the room level. Johnson later filed a patent for the a multi-zone thermostatic control system.

After Johnson, Albert Butz, a Swedish-born immigrant to the United States invented the damper flapper, which used a pulley system to control heat by raising and lowering a furnace damper. In 1906 Butz’s patent and company were scooped by Mark Honeywell, who would go on to create the first programmable thermostat.

Digital programmable thermostats emerged in the 1980s, and smart, or learning, thermostats appeared on the market just seven years ago in 2011. Where original thermostats contributed to the modern world of convenience and saved on time, labor and some cost, today’s smart thermostats are saving users 10–15% on energy costs and greatly reducing fossil fuel use. According to ENERGY STAR, if ENERGY STAR-certified smart thermostats become ubiquitous, savings would grow to 56 trillion BTUs of energy and $740 million dollars per year, offsetting 13 billion pounds of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

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