The History of Heating

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  • For thousands and thousands of years, humans have been inventing with new ways to heat their homes and stave off the cold in winter.  Human ingenuity brought us to the cozy, climate-controlled warmth we have today, with our allergen-free homes and zones of warmth, but that technology is relatively new in the span of human history.  Last week we talked about the history of keeping things cool – today lets look back at keeping warm over the centuries.

    In the beginning… there was fire.

    Well, first off there was heat from the sun, but then there was fire.  Archaeologists believe man was using fire pits dating back 1.2 million years and fixed hearths have been excavated in Greece dating from 2500 BC.

    But it wasn’t all huddling around fires.  Underfloor radiant heating was installed in a palace in Turkey around 1300 BC and as long ago a 1,000 BC there were underfloor heating systems called “ondol” in use in what is now North Korea.  The Romans used “hypocausts” for underfloor heating of their own – taking the technology to the next level by channeling heated air into open spaces beneath buildings – though those techniques lost favor after the fall of the Roman Empire and hearths ruled the day again in Europe.

    The first rudimentary chimney is believed to have been used as early as the 12th Century – almost a thousand years ago – though their popularity spread slowly and it wasn’t until the stove was invented and coal was introduced as a fuel in the 16th century that indoor heating really took off.

    Coal kept us warm, but coal smoke leaves a mark – the pollution is off the charts.  It’s one of the primary causes of acid rain and coal smoke was one of the reasons why London in the 19th century was so polluted.  That London fog wasn’t just fog, it was heavy with coal-smoke and could even be fatal.  (London has since changed their primary sources of heat, thanks to some newer technologies and Clean Air Acts and is now one of the healthier major cities for air quality.)

    But back to heating… we needed something other than coal.  Luckily, the radiator was invented in Russia in the 1850s.  Not long after that, the first electric heater was devised by Thomas Edison in 1883 – and around the same time he was opening the first commercial power plant: The Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan which would be part of what later became known as General Electric (GE).

    The oil-fuel furnace made its debut in the 1920s and soon became a popular domestic heating option.  In later years electric powered furnaces came along and in the 1940s the first ground source heat pump was invented by Robert C. Weber.  Today’s heat pumps—but the technology still had a long way to go before it became the modern heat-pump systems that are saving us money today.

    We’ve come a long way, but the science of heating is always developing.  Who knows what the future will bring?