June 2, 2020
How a Raging Fire Got CALMAC Inventor to Focus – and Win in the Market
The late Calvin MacCracken is the inventor behind CALMAC® Corporation, the thermal energy storage company acquired by Trane® in 2017. With 250 inventions and more than 80 patents to his name, Calvin spent his entire engineering career looking toward the future. He was a visionary; he just seemed to know what the future was going to be like.
Calvin’s son, Mark MacCracken, vice president and CALMAC portfolio leader, remembers walking into his father’s office to find him staring at his rotary phone. It was in the late 1970s.
“My father asked me, ‘Do you realize that the answer to every question is at the end of this wire?’” Mark said. “’All you need to know is the proper 10-digit sequence to get the answer.’”
“It’s awesome and pretty weird at the same time,” Mark laughed, “but he was anticipating the internet. He was an incredible guy – he had a brilliant mind.”
More than 20 years earlier – in the 1950s – he had accurately predicted the use of solar energy.
Calvin invented way too many products to list in this article, but the highlights include designing the combustion chamber and throttling the first jet engine ever built by GE, at the instruction of former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II. He also invented a high-efficiency residential furnace after starting his own company – at the age of 27 – inspired by the jet engine’s combustion principles.
Read more about Calvin and his revolutionary furnace in the December 1946 edition of Life Magazine; CALMAC was called Jet Heet then.
Mark says his father was full of good ideas, but not all of them were money-makers. Mark started working with his father in 1976, and played an important part in steering Calvin toward the more profitable ideas.
“The thing about being the son of an inventor is, you realize that inventors don’t always make a lot of money,” Mark said. “My father invented the roller type of hot dog machine you see just about everywhere. You’d think he’d be a billionaire after that, but he sold the patent for a relatively small amount because he needed money to develop his next invention.
“He had so many great ideas, but they were all over the place.”
There’s nothing like a fire to get things cooking
Several years after Mark joined his father’s business, a fire burned down their facility in Englewood, New Jersey. At the time, they were working on solar projects and thermal energy storage technologies for ice skating rinks, residential buildings and commercial applications.
“The fire seemed like a catastrophe at the time, but it was the best thing that could have happened to us because it got us to focus,” Mark said. “My dad loved coming up with ideas, but when it came time to rebuild, we decided to focus on thermal energy storage for commercial applications, and this is what made us successful in the marketplace.”
That is when Calvin patented his Ice Bank® technology, which dramatically reduces peak electric loads in buildings by shifting cooling production to off-peak hours. CALMAC still uses this technology today; it’s used in 4,500 installations in 60 countries around the world.
Inducted into ASHRAE hall of fame
Calvin is the second Trane Technologies inventor to be inducted into the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE®) Hall of Fame, in 2016. (Reuben Trane was inducted into the ASHRAE Hall of Fame in 1997.)
In March 2020 Calvin was also inducted into ASHRAE’s Thermal Energy Storage Technical Committee’s new Cool Thermal Energy Storage Hall of Fame. He helped form the committee in 1976, the year Mark joined the business. Mark chaired the committee in the late 1980s and has been involved in it ever since. Mark accepted the award on his father’s behalf.
“I’m so proud of what my father has accomplished during his career,” Mark said. “He was not your typical inventor. He went to an Ivy League school and was clean cut – a really handsome guy. He was also incredibly creative and supportive of anyone with ideas – no matter what they were.”
Cool facts about Cal
- Calvin started attending Princeton University at the age of 16; he graduated with a degree in Astronomy in 1940.
- He worked for Theodore Edison, Thomas Edison’s son, in the summer of 1940. (Mark still has the pay stub to prove it!) Theodore told Calvin to get an engineering degree “if he wanted to become an inventor.
- Calvin graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with his engineering degree in 1941. Theodore advised him on which courses to take.
- He began his career with the General Electric Co. and worked in its Creative Engineering Program.
- Calvin was inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame in its inaugural year, alongside Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.
- His inventions include comfort controls for the first astronauts’ space suits, 2-inch flexible pre-insulated heating and cooling ducts, a plastic mat-type ice rink and roll-out solar collectors.
- Calvin won the U.S. Squash National Championships 11 times. He was also in the top 50 in men’s tennis.
- Calvin says he owes his mechanical skills to growing up on the campus of Vassar College, where his father worked as college president. Vassar’s mechanical systems served as his childhood playground.