Finally summer is upon us so what do we think about? Getting cool. We live in a pretty cool town, but when the temperature hits 30 degrees (that’s about 86 degrees American) we start looking for comfort. We’re fortunate that we live in an air conditioned era but that’s not available to everyone, everywhere so the next best thing is an electric fan.
Fans don’t actually cool the air but they make us feel cooler and that’s OK. Vintage fans look cool too, so that’s a double reason to have one or two. There are a surprising number of people collecting vintage electric desk fans but there’s also enough of them around that just about anybody can afford to have a functional piece of industrial age artwork on their desk to keep them a bit cooler on a hot, summer day.
The electric fan was invented in 1882 by Schuyler Skaats Wheeler, a prominent American engineer. Actually the fan wasn’t so much a ground-breaking invention as it was an application of two already existing inventions; the electric motor and the propeller.
The electric motor is one of the most important inventions of the modern era. Crude but functioning motors, which worked on direct current, started to appear in the early 1800s. However they weren’t used much because, as we had no electrical supply system in place yet, they depended on very expensive batteries for power. In 1886 Thomas Edison (or Frank Sprague, who worked for him) gave us the first commercially successful motor that used his direct current power grid. It was Nicola Tesla who in 1887 gave us the first practical alternating current (AC) motors (he designed several variations) that still power just about everything we do and are responsible for about half of all electric power consumption today.
Theoretical propeller design can be traced back to the drawings of Leonardo DaVinci. The Scottish inventor James Watt is credited with inventing the modern propeller, to be used on his steam engines, though he never built one. In 1833 John Patch of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, developed the first two-blade, fan-shaped propeller to be used on a boat, which he demonstrated with great critical success. Unfortunately he was denied a U.S. patent until 1849 because he was not an American citizen. By then there were dozens of other competing designs as the entire marine industry converted from paddle wheels to propellers.
Wheeler’s first fan, marketed by Crocker & Curtis Electric Motor Co., had an electric motor as invented by Tesla and a two-blade propeller, much like John Patch’s, with no protective cage around it. In fact cages didn’t appear on fans for a number of years and the first ones were minimal, with gaps large enough to put your fist through because they were designed to protect the delicate blades, not the humans around them.
Metal manufacturing was still in its infancy and the blades on early fans were usually made of brass, because it was the easiest material to work with. Those fans are among the most desirable today, especially those made by Robbins & Meyers from 1911 to 1917. Known for their simplicity and quality workmanship, many still function without the need for restoration and they look gorgeous all polished up.
The Westinghouse Company, which bought all of Tesla’s patents and employed him for many years, got heavily into fan production and supplied motors to other companies. By the early 1900s desktop fans were in virtually every office. Those early fans came in all sizes and shapes. Some had a light bulb on top, though it wasn’t there to provide light but to act as a resistor and slow the motor down. Most of them didn’t even have a plug as we know it today; the cord was screwed into a light bulb socket.
After the oscillating fan was introduced around 1906 that was pretty well it for mechanical improvements. Electric motor theory was complete; all that remained was for the motors to get a bit smaller and more efficient.
In 1902 Willis Carrier invented the air conditioner and by 1920, many work places were switching to central air. Fan manufacturers turned their attention to residential consumers and began concentrating on design.
In 1930, the Emerson Electric Company, which manufactured fans, electric motors and railroad switching equipment in St. Louis, MO, introduced a radically different fan dubbed The Silver Swan. It had an aluminum blade based on the shape of a yacht propeller. This is considered the first Art Deco fan but soon, many others followed. Emerson fans remain highly desirable among collectors today, mostly because of their innovative designs.
Fan production slowed considerably in the 1940s due to the war effort. By the 1950s, air conditioning was becoming an option for home owners, so fans never really got back to where they were before the war. They were still around though and fans from the 1950s and 60s have an attractive modernist look, still function well and are desirable partly because they are made entirely of metal, not plastic.
Old fans, especially the early ones, do require some maintenance. They should be oiled regularly but you have to be careful not to over oil them. Some models have the undesirable tendency to throw oil about if there’s too much in the reservoir.
While the very early fans are scarce, there are lots of older metal fans around and they’re not expensive. You should always check the power cord for breaks or burns in the insulation and replace it if necessary before you plug it in. If the bearings aren’t worn out and the shaft rotates, it will probably work fine.
That vintage fan can keep you cool, and will look cool, for years to come.