History of the Water Heater - Invented by Edwin Ruud

The Invention and History of the Water Heater

Norwegian Edwin Ruud is credited with inventing the first automatic storage water heater in 1889, but this was by no means the first such device. Other inventors had him beat by almost 40 years, but hot water was nonetheless cost-prohibitive and a luxury at the time, available only to the wealthiest Americans.

The First Electric Water Heaters

Fire was the first water heater. In ancient times and through the 18th century, water was heated over flames then transferred into vessels for bathing or other uses, but this process had its drawbacks and as civilization evolved, so did man’s need for more efficient water heating.

Although the inventor of the process remains nameless, someone got the idea to heat bathwater – and the tub itself – via gas jets placed under tubs sometime around 1850. An Englishman, Benjamin Waddy Maughan, took this one step further in 1868. He devised a system by which water was heated as it poured into the tub, something like turning on the hot water faucet today. He called his invention the “Geyser” and received a patent for it. It used gas vapors to generate the heat, but Maughan neglected to install a flue device so these gases could escape safely. They were declared dangerous for home use as a result, but water heaters are still sometimes referred to as “geysers” in England. 

Edwin Ruud’s Design

Norwegian Edwin Ruud, a mechanical engineer, built on Maughan’s version of a water heater to create the first electric, automatic storage heater in 1889. Ruud had immigrated to Pittsburgh to work for George Westinghouse at the Fuel Gas and Manufacturing Company.

He invented his first improved water heater while he was with Westinghouse, receiving a patent for it in 1890.

For the most part, Ruud simply added safety features to Maughan’s initial design on his initial design and patent. He added another feature, a coil to warm the water, seven years later. The coil replaced the storage tank on his first invention.

Ruud eventually jumped ship and established his own company, the Ruud Manufacturing Company, in 1897, buying the rights to his own inventions. Ruud Manufacturing is still in operation and is considered to be among the leading water heater manufacturers in the U.S. As for Ruud, he received the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Gold Medal for his invention in 1904 – the event was better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. The Franklin Institute awarded him the Edward Longstreth Medal of Merit a year later.

Other Water Heaters

Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since Ruud patented his first invention. Tankless water heaters don’t store water any longer, but rather heat it as it passes through a line. These heaters are considered more energy efficient because they don't heat a mass of water that may sit in a tank all day, unused. Many homeowners have converted to solar water heaters. Sunlight “collectors” are installed on roofs or elsewhere outside, then this solar power is used to heat the water.