When we think of the early distribution of electricity in North America in the 1880s, we tend to picture homes of the well-to-do suddenly being illuminated at night by Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulbs. That’s vision is accurate enough, but just below “light” at the top of the new electricity-consumer’s wish list was “air,” which was delivered via electric motors that spun pie-slice-shaped brass blades, stirring and circulating the air within what had been stagnant rooms.
Some of the first fans were made by companies run by Charles Crocker, who owned partnerships in Curtis & Crocker and Crocker-Wheeler. These fans were hardly what we’d call “child-safe” today. Their blades, which spun at upwards of 1,600 revolution per minute, were uncaged, while their direct-current, or DC, electrical connections were exposed, producing shocks if touched even when the fans were not running. Later, cages were added around the blades, but this radical step was taken protect the blades, not curious fingers.
Edison, whose Edison Illuminating Company sent power throughout lower Manhattan, was a self-interested proponent of DC, but many of his earliest electrical fans were battery-powered. His Type S batteries came in a heavy wooden box that was more than two-feet long. Inside were four porcelain jars, each of which held the ingredients for a battery. When the power ran out, which for an average Edison fan was after about 125 hours, the customer would have to replace the zinc and copper plates within the jars, as well as each cell’s supply of potash and water.
Competitors to Crocker and Edison manufactured fans that ran on alternating current, or AC, powered by induction motors engineered by Nikola Tesla. Westinghouse was the first company to put Tesla’s motor’s into its fans, which featured four teardrop-shaped, caged blades. Emerson was another early adopter of AC; its blades are distinctive for their irregular kidney shape. And as motors got smaller, thanks mostly to reductions in the size of the wire used inside them, fans got less bulky, with side-view profiles resembling a short stack of pancakes, for which these fans are named.
A cousin to the electric fan was the kerosene fan, which was popular in rural areas where electricity was uncommon. These floor fans stood on wrought-iron bases and featured kerosene engines, some made by Stirling, whose heat rotated the fan’s blades, which in turn generated a cooling breeze. Jost was one manufacturer of kerosene fans, as was Lake Breeze Motor, which also made alcohol-burning desk fans.
By World War I, companies such as Menominee, General Electric, Western Electric, Eck Dynamo & Motor, Robbins & Myers, and Colonial were manufacturing oscillating and stationary electric desk fans. Brass, which was needed for ammunition, was replaced by steel and eventually aluminum, which allowed manufacturers to create lighter blades. While General Electric had pioneered the use of overlapping blades to create a quieter fan, Emerson designer Jane Evans used aluminum for its beauty, creating, in 1932, the Silver Swan, whose rounded, overlapping blades suggested the feathered profiles of a flock of the beautiful birds.
Other electric manufacturers from the middle of the 20th century include Gilbert, which had its own version of Emerson’s Silver Swan; Samson, which made an uncaged fan whose four blades were made of rubber; and Fitzgerald, whose streamline moderne motor housings suggested torpedoes or futuristic space ships.