When the winds of winter come a-blowing in this day and age, most Americans are fortunate enough to benefit from the comfort and convenience of modern home heating systems. The harsh weather this time of year still solicits plenty of complaints from those forced to contend with its biting cold temperatures and spastic bouts of snow and ice, and it still delivers its fair share of potentially dangerous seasonal mayhem. But despite our human instinct to carp incessantly no matter our circumstances, we are lucky to live in a time when the natural forces of winter are much more of a mild perturbance than they are a serious impediment to survival. For the vast majority of human history, however, the opposite was true.
Finding sustainable sources of heat has always been a necessity for humans to be able to live at all, let alone live comfortably. Our desperation and the means in which we do so, on the other hand, have evolved drastically from century to century, civilization to civilization. Before it was as easy as pushing a button, staying warm and heating one’s living space was typically complicated, time consuming, often physically taxing and in some cases extremely hazardous, not to mention inefficient and far less effective than modern means. For today’s article, we’ll be examining the evolution of man-made heat throughout time.
Fire, Caves & Clothes (1,900,000 BCE)
Humans have been making their own heat in the form of fire for as long as they’ve been around to make it, which scientists believe is right around 1.9 million years. In terms of its importance, the discovery and eventual harnessing of fire as a source of heat (and light) is essentially what allowed mankind to survive and thrive as a species. Ever since the first cave person figured out how to make fire on his own, humans have been slowly but steadily improving the means by which they are able to produce, manipulate and simulate fire.
The caves these early humans used as living spaces were another huge step forward in humanity’s never ending quest for warmth. By moving indoors, they discovered how to insulate and shield themselves from the elements, as well as where to find more moderate temperatures. Cave people also wore whole animal hides as clothing, which would have helped them to stay warm inside and outside of their caves, even if they weren’t the most comfortable or trendy garments.
All of these methods were undeniably primitive, but so was everything else some 2 million years ago. In their own time, fire, shelter and clothing were cutting edge, and as time went on these innovations paved the way for the rest of human history to follow in their footsteps. In a broad sense, for nearly 2 million years we have simply been refining and perfecting different combinations of these three original ingredients in order to find the ideal level of warmth and comfort, although it took most of those 2 million years before any real progress was made on the fire front.
Hearths (42,000 BCE)
Around 42,000 years before the modern calendar came into effect, neanderthals and neolithic settlers started building open hearths to heat homes and buildings. Hearths were essentially early versions of fireplaces without chimneys that allowed people to somewhat controlled fires indoors. Ventilation typically consisted of a hole in the ceiling of the structure that contained the hearth. While this technology was another big step forward, the fact that they were little more than indoor fire pits with open flames posed a lot of problems.
Hypocausts (2500 BCE)
At the height of the Roman Empire, Greeks invented an early version of central heating called hypocausts. Far ahead of their time, hypocausts heated empty spaces underfloors that fed the heat to a network of pipes throughout a building, which also made it the first form of radiant heating. This method was not very practical or cost efficient, which meant that only wealthy households could afford them. By the fall of the Roman Empire, hypocausts were no longer used and most had reverted to using fireplaces.
Around the year 800, wood-burning stoves made of clay were often used for home heating. These stoves were still rather crudely designed and constructed by comparison. While they did do a better job of containing and protecting fires, these stoves still required open flames and were highly accident prone as a result. Additionally, they needed to be constantly stocked with firewood to burn, which in most cases meant procuring and cutting your own.
Furnaces & Chimneys (1200)
Four hundred years after the introduction of clay stoves, monks in Europe revived the concept of central heating by introducing a system that used wood burning furnaces and river diversion as a power source. However, it would take a long time before furnaces caught on and became popular with the public. Around the same time, chimneys were introduced as a means to ventilate the smoke from either wood-burning stoves and furnaces. While the addition of chimneys made the overall heating process a lot safer, many safety problems persisted.
Masonry Stoves (1400)
200 years after being introduced, the technology used in chimneys had been refined and improved upon, which led to them becoming standard by the 1400s. Also around this time, a new popular home heating method emerged in the form of masonry stoves. These stoves resembled modern brick fireplaces, with their refined chimneys giving users the ability to light bigger fires and heat their homes more efficiently. While many homes today – especially older homes – still feature similar technology, they are often used more as novelties in modern contexts as opposed to a primary heat source.
Circulating Fireplace (1624)
200 years after the introduction of the masonry stove, French inventor Louis Savot came up with the prototype for a circulating fireplace. These fireplaces used a raised gate to create airflow that would spread the heat around a space a more efficiently.
Franklin Stove (1741)
A little over a hundred years after Louis Savot’s circulating fireplace, Benjamin Franklin invented the aptly named Franklin Stove. As if he hadn’t already invented enough, Franklin’s stove was more effective and more efficient than other models that were commercially available at the time.
Boiler and Pipes (1790s)
In the late 1700s, Scottish inventor James Watt developed a steam-based system that used centrally located boilers that distributed heat from steam via a system of pipes throughout a building. While much more efficient than earlier systems, this temperamental system still required an open flame to heat the boiler and was prone to explosions.
Warm Air Furnace (1805)
In the early 19th century, William Strutt of England invented a furnace that heated cold air and distributed it throughout homes via a series of air ducts. The system still used an open flame, but the idea of heating readily available air was groundbreaking at the time.
Fifty years after the invention of the warm air furnace, Russian inventor Franz San Galli introduced the first cast iron radiator. This invention would later be seen as the basis for modern central heating systems.
Around the turn of the 20th century, a man named Albert March discovered the metal Nichrome – the filament wire found in toasters and electric heaters that emits heat when powered. With this invention, March became known as the father of the electrical heating industry.
Gas Burning Central Heating System (1919)
After WWI, a black female inventor named Alice Parker received a patent for her design for a gas-powered central heating system – the first of its kind. Despite being the first to patent such an invention, Parker went virtually unrecognized and unrewarded for her groundbreaking design. Her invention was adopted and modified under new patents for commercial use soon thereafter. Regardless of her lack of credit, Parker’s system became the blueprint for all modern forms of central heating.
Convection Wall Heaters (1935)
16 years after Alice Parkers patent, scientists introduced a forced convection wall heater that used a coal burning furnace and electric fans that distributed the heat via ductwork.
Ground Source Heat Pump (1940s)
In the late 40s, inventor Robert C. Webber introduced the direct exchange groud-source heat pump. His design used copper tubing buried in the ground through which he ran Freon gas to gather the ground heat. The gas was condensed in his cellar, gave off its heat and forced the expanded gas through the ground coil to pick up another load.
Solar Air Heating (1990)
Almost thirty years ago now, a company called SolarWall developed solar panel technology that used energy and heat from direct sunlight and converts it to heat. Many homeowners are now opting for solar panel powering in their homes for the energy saving benefits. Energy efficiency is now a priority in the design of any and all types of home heating and HVAC systems.
Smart Home Technology (2000s)
With the advent of smart technology in the new millennium, inventors were quick to apply this technology to home appliances like HVAC systems. With smart home technology, homeowners can now regulate and control their home’s temperature and air quality from virtually anywhere using their smartphones.
Learning about where we came from as humans helps us learn to appreciate how far we’ve come. It’s important to educate ourselves and others about the past so that we can continue to be grateful for all the things we tend to take for granted in everyday life, including warmth and comfort. We hope you learned a thing or two from this week’s article. Leave a comment below to share your thoughts or add any info that we may have missed. If you liked what you read, be sure to share it on social media and visit our blog for more new content weekly! And as always, thanks for reading!