The ceiling fan—a convenient, standard furnishing we often take for granted these days. Looking back, the ceiling fan was, unequivocally, one of the greatest inventions of its time. It was created at a time where the suffocating heat and glaring sun was combated by the (relatively meager) paper fan or parasol; before that, the lotus leaf, and before that still, the public bath. All options that were either hand-powered or unhygienic.
It was only after 1880 that America lit up with widespread electric power distribution, a turning point that elevated the Second Industrial Revolution to futuristic heights. And it was the foresight of two men—Schuyler Wheeler and Philip Diehl—that gave us cool, breezy summers we lounge in today. For you history buffs out there, here’s bit more about them:
Schuyler Skaats Wheeler was born in New York City on May 17th, 1860, a child of Dutch descendants James Edwin Wheeler and Annie Wood Skaats. He attended Columbia College and was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Science by Hobart College in 1894, and then a Master of Science by Columbia in 1912. At the age of 21, Wheeler began his path into the electrical sciences and became an assistant electrician for the Jablochkoff Electric Light Company. Just a few years later, he would join the engineering staff responsible for the debut of the incandescent light bulb—the project manned by Thomas A. Edison himself.
In 1882, during his time in Jablochkoff, Wheeler found inspiration from the works of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. In the midst of a world only just realizing the potential of electricity, Wheeler was determined to join the ranks of America’s finest inventors. And it gave him a most revolutionary idea.
He placed a two-blade propeller on the shaft of an electric motor—and just like that, the electric desktop fan was born.
Wheeler continued to carry out several citywide projects, inventing various new electrical devices along the way. He would help form the C. & C. Electric Motor Company, the first ever to manufacture and distribute small electric motors. Soon after that he would co-create the Crocker & Wheeler firm, subsequently evolving into the Crocker-Wheeler Company. In 1904, he was awarded with the John Scott Medal of the Franklin Institute for the invention of the electric fan, and would go on to create other significant inventions that we still use and rely on today.
Philip H. Diehl was born in Dalsheim, Germany and migrated to New York City in 1868. During his stay, Diehl worked in various machine shops before settling in as an apprentice for the Singer Manufacturing Company (an American manufacturer of sewing machines). He eventually transferred to Chicago, Illinois, and continued his career at the Remington Machine Company until 1875. It was during this time he lost all of his assets to the Great Chicago Fire.
Diehl would relocate to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he began experimenting with improvements to the standard sewing machine. He would often spend time experimenting in his home basement as well. It was there that his first notable invention was born.
At the start of what can be considered the most innovative time of his career, Diehl conceived and introduced a new type of incandescent lamp; one that had no lead-in wires—one that directly challenged Thomas Edison’s electric version. In 1882, he obtained a patent on his induction incandescent lamp and would go on to obtain many more for a number of different versions.
His experience on the manufacturing line inspired him to motorize the trendy belt-driven ceiling fans that were growing in popularity. With a standard sewing machine motor, he proceeded to attach fan blades to it and mounted it on the ceiling.
In 1887, Philip Diehl patented the world’s first electric ceiling fan, a new and improved version of the belt-driven fan. Its self-contained motor made the fan completely automated, and the “Diehl Electric” was an instant commercial success. Later, as the head of Diehl and Co., Diehl would go on to add a light fixture to the fan and eventually a split-ball joint for easier redirection. In 1889, the American Institute of New York awarded Diehl with an honorary bronze medal for his revolutionary invention.
The days of Wheeler and Diehl have long come to an end, but their ever-present contributions remain with us to this day. Thanks to these two pioneers of electrical engineering, most of us will never have to worry about paper fans or lotus leaves. So the next time you’re lounging comfortably in your home, remember the ceiling fan—the invention, the décor piece, the miracle of American ingenuity.