Thermaire - The Start of it all
Caldwell Portman agreement 44The original company, Thermaire (Pty) Ltd was started in Port Elizabeth by Robert JS Caldwell and Anton Portman. The original agreement was signed in October 1944, with the company starting operations in the January of 1945, with 4000 Pounds in Capital.
Caldwell was to take on overall managerial responsibility, including design and estimating, and Portman was in charge of installations and the workshop.
A quote from Caldwell’s diary written to his son February 1945. “We have gambled, and whether we shall succeed or fail remains to be seen. As far as I myself am concerned it means long hours of hard work, little rest, and much worry and responsibility. Portman, my partner, is a hard man, but he is a first class man at his job. So we shall see.”
Not much has been written about Portman except that he was Swiss, and was considered by Caldwell to be the finest sheet metal worker in the country, by far, and had experience in refrigeration plant installation and maintenance, heating, and pipe fitting. Caldwell wrote in one of his articles in 1970 “No one could have had a harder working, straighter or better partner and in our long haul together we never had a serious disagreement”
Caldwell-PhotoCaldwell was born in London, trained as an Electrical Engineer, he came to South Africa in 1928 “ in search of new opportunities in engineering” In 1934 he turned to the new field of airconditioning, and worked for the first ever South African airconditioning company in Johannesburg.
Robert Caldwell actually credits reading about Dr. Carrier, “the inventor of modern airconditioning” for him changing careers from electrical to this new field of airconditioning and worked with Dr Carrier on two occasions, a relationship that continued during Thermaire’s years. Although an absolute genius, Dr Carrier who’s mental arithmetic was unprecedented, was by all accounts terribly absent minded, and once left his wife behind at a railway station while on their way to Philadelphia. Caldwell notes “He was twice in South Africa, and, both times, for periods long enough for us to get to know him well, to be awed by his mental mathematics and endless flow of ideas, to be wary of his forthrightness, and to be charmed by his good humour and helpfulness.” “He was a grand man, and a great inspiration. He was a genuine enthusiast, lived simply, and asked little from life but his work, his family and his friends.”
Read more on this in Caldwell’s Reminiscences of an old hand, article 2, by following the link in our links & articles section below. Read more about Dr. Willis H Carrier and the ground breaking work by the “inventor of modern airconditioning” by following the link below.
Thermaire started out installing airconditioning into hospital ships and ventilation into troop ships for British Admiralty in the Port Elizabeth Harbour. The workshop was based in Holland street, paying 12 Pounds in rent per month, with a staff compliment of 12 people. To say that it was tough was an understatement, they had no vehicles, with Caldwell riding the bus to see prospective clients, and ducting being ridden into the harbour by hand on a trolley and donkey cart.
Quote from Portman’s notes,
“So then daily I tramped down to the docks, accepted whatever work they put our way. We then knocked the stuff together in our workshop and then when completed literally pushed it all the way to the docks. We had a poorlier means of transport. All the other contractors engaged at the boats turned up in their lorries and cars. Whereas we got hold of a direlect donkey cart, I can’t even remember where it came from but it did some wonderful service for us We certainly looked a queer outfit. Nevertheless we were always in good books with the overseers and of the most conscientious and hard working outfits.”
Letter of thanks from The Admiralty 21 Nov 1945
After the war, Caldwell and the staff of Thermaire pioneered airconditioning for the newly developing textile industry, which was fast becoming a major industry in the region. During this time Caldwell worked closely with Dr William Carrier, who as it turned out invented airconditioning to solve a production problem at the Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Company in Brooklyn, New York.
Thermaire pioneered and installed ground breaking systems for Good Hope Textile Corp, Fine Wool Products, Cape of Good Hope Wool Combers and Union Spinning Mills. During the early years Thermaire installed airconditioning and ventilations systems into various buildings and industries, across the entire Eastern Cape Region, and included,
The installation of dozens of large self-contained ventilation plants in the original General Motors in Kempston road.
• Airconditioning for Sixteen telephone exchanges, across the Eastern Cape.
• Twenty hospitals, including the Provincial in Port Elizabeth, the Frere in East London, the Frontier in Queenstown and the Cradock Hospital.
• Confectionary cooling and dehumidification systems for Cadbury Fry, now Mondelez International in Port Elizabeth and Wilson-Rowntree in East London.
• Pharmaceutical Companies Maybacker, Rexall and Lennons, now Aspen Pharmacare, also founded in Port Elizabeth, with a relationship that still continues to this day.
• Port Elizabeth’s first air-conditioned large scale Department Store, OK Bazaars in Main Street, followed by Woolworths and Greatermans. In fact most of the air-conditioned stores in Main street were completed by Thermaire.
• Port Elizabeth’s first air-conditioned multi-storey office block, the African Life Building.
The Greatermans store was equipped with the first centrifugal refrigeration chiller in the Eastern Cape. Invented by Willis Carrier and at the time “ Imported from the United States, this 320hp machine provides the most modern and efficient air-cooling system in use “
Early version of the Carrier chiller
The company flourished, and as it expanded, and after several moves, ended up in newly built premises at 18 Sidwell avenue in 1948, from where the company has traded to this day.Both Caldwell and Portman stayed with the company until 1968. In 1969 Mr Michael Streeter took over as managing director, until 1978. Thermaire was always at the forefront of innovation and training, and contributed substantially to the training of airconditioning engineers and specialists for the whole of South Africa. Many of the “old Hands” in the industry have passed through its doors at some stage.
Two specialist manufacturers were started at Thermaire, Donkin that manufactured fans and Ventline a manufacturer of grills and diffusers. Both companies are now part of the Howden Group, but they became major companies in their own right within the industry.
During the seventies the company was bought by Murray & Roberts, who then amalgamated various other airconditioning companies from across South Africa into one company, Improvair.
Improvair had branches in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, East London and eventually also Bloemfontein and Windhoek.
This continued for about 20 years until Murray & Roberts decided to move out of the construction industry, selling off construction related assets, and sold the Improviar branches off in various management buy-outs.
The Port Elizabeth branch of Improvair was purchased by Danny Zdanow, Jacques du Preez and Paul Sharkie in 2003, and ITD Airconditioning was born.
The rest they say is history, with ITD Airconditioning growing from strength to strength over the years since the buy-out. Staff has grown from 34 to now over 100, and turnover growing three-fold.
ITD Airconditioning is continually building on the original foundations laid by Caldwell and Portman, and strives to continue as the leader in the airconditioning and ventilation industry in the Eastern Cape. ITD continues with the proud tradition of training and continually provides both electrical and refrigeration apprentices as well as pupil engineers, with a solid training ground through both internally and externally run courses. ITD truly believes in empowering its people through training.