The heat gun is a tool that’s used in a lot of home improvement projects. It’s used to help peel paint, dry paint, apply shrink wrap, soften materials and probably limitless other things. There are many companies that manufacture them, including Steinel in Germany, and there are several other brands that do a great job of doing what heat guns do. But have you ever stopped to think, “where did the heat gun come from?” Like many tools that we use today, the origins of the heat gun isn’t apparent, but with some digging and detective work, there’s a timeline that emerges.
The origins of the heat gun seem to go all the way back to the early 1900’s, possibly earlier if you consider non-electric heat guns. The electric heat gun is a technological descendent of early electrical heaters and the inventor of the modern heat gun cites this early electric air diffusing device in his patent for a heat gun. This early electric heater basically looks like a fan with a heating element and insulating disc “preferably made of asbestos.” The heating technology also appeared in other types of heaters and electric ovens in 1930’s Germany. The technology wasn’t really applied to a proper heat gun until the 1930s.
The first proper heat gun was developed in 1930 and the patent was awarded to C.H. Kenney in 1934. Kenney’s heat gun was invented primarily as a way to remove paint by using the heat gun to soften the dried paint and make it blister so that it could be scraped off. A slightly more powerful looking version arrived in 1936 and it looked a lot like older versions of the electric screwdriver, being a two-handed tool, an it looks like it came out of a Half Life videogame. This version of the heat gun was invented by Milton H. Spielman, who worked with electric motors and vacuum cleaners. It looks as though it had a larger heating coil and all around looked like a more powerful heating applicator. Spielman’s heat gun was designed and intended to be used to thaw frozen oil and water in pipes and cars. It also featured asbestos.
The heat gun underwent other innovations. It was a Hot Air Gun, sometimes used Vulcanizing tires, and eventually became the gun-shaped heat gun we recognize. This was also used for removing paint. Probably the most significant change though was the heat gun patented by Fred E. Schumacher. Schumacher noted that the heating element in most, if not all, previous heat guns was wrapped around the barrel of the heat gun which lead to hotspots. That doesn’t seem quite correct when looking at the Spielman model, but there must have been some issue with the way heating elements were used with previous heat guns for Schumacher to address this. Schumacher also noted that the way other models worked would cause early burnout and therefore increased maintenance costs. He also made changes that resulted in greater efficiency, part of this was likely due having an insulator covering the heating element and having the air blow over the element as it leaves the gun. In this way the modern heat gun had finally arrived.
The story of the heat gun is a really interesting progression of how electric heaters were adapted into a tool that was able to apply focused and directed heat with the convenient set up of a gun. It took many different innovators to get us from a heater to a heat gun, but it’s interesting to look back and see the process of how one invention led to something completely new.