Ancient Methods of Heating the Home

While up until modern times fire had been the only source for home heating, the manner in which it was used changed greatly. If we stretch the word home to include all dwelling places, then charcoal left from fires have been found and dated at Upper Paleolithic sites, between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. In Skara Brae site in Orkney, Scotland (3180 BCE-2500 BCE) the homes contained a square hearth in the center for both eating and cooking. There has been some debate about the fuel used in this hearth, whether peat or wood.

This almost standard heating unit, hearth in the center of the room with a smoke hole overhead, continued in some parts of the world up until the Middle Ages, but in the Roman world especially great improvements were made. The upper class Roman had a hypocaust heating system. In this system, the floor was raised several feet off the ground on tile pillars, and fires were then built underneath the floors, becoming the first known case of radiant heating.

The fireplace as we know it today came along in the 1200’s, although they hadn’t quite yet worked out how to build effective chimneys, so they tended to smoke up the room.  The fireplaces themselves were often built more for ornament that effectiveness. Even at Versailles, during the reign of the Sun King himself, his courtiers and even his wife, Madame de Maintenon, complained of the bitter cold in winter.

Although stoves were beginning to be used for heating, even they were not very effective. Benjamin Franklin is famous for designing a better version in 1741. The radiator was a great improvement in heating a room at least, being invented in St Petersburg around 1855. They used hot water or steam to heat individual rooms, but with crude thermostats it was difficult to get the temperature right where it was wanted. There are many tales of having to open the windows in winter as it had gotten too hot in the room.

The late Victorian period brought in the furnace, where a central unit could heat an entire house or even building. And by the middle of the 20th century, we had arrived at the common use of the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system in the western world. Some attempts have been made with passive solar or geothermal heating, and while some great successes have been achieved, both have too many specialized requirements to work everywhere.

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1 Response to Ancient Methods of Heating the Home

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