Ever since early man lived in caves, we have sought to find ways to control our environment for comfort. Heating is perhaps the oldest example – and while we have come a long way since fire was first discovered, the principles have often not changed that much.
In very early dwellings, archaeologists often find evidence of open fires, which we presume were used for heating as well as for cooking. Roundhouses, built in Britain from the Bronze Age well into post-Roman times, used a central fire, and archaeologists believe that the smoke simply gathered in the roofspace and dissipated through the thatch.
The Romans were, of course, famous for their technological advancements. One of these was their underfloor heating system, called a hypocaust. By raising the floor on pillars, and setting a fire at one end of the chamber thus created, they created the first form of radiant panel heating – rather than trying to heat the air in the room, the system heated the floor itself, and the people when they stood upon the floor. Other systems used openings in the floor to allow the warm air to come in to the room – creating the first warm air heating systems.
Sadly Roman technology fell into decline, so for much of the medieval era heating was, once again, provided by the central fire or hearth. Whilst short flues were often used to carry the smoke outside, chimneys as we recognise them today were still rare even in the 16th century.
The Industrial Revolution
As machinery began to be introduced into various aspects of life, innovation in heating technology began to be seen once more – in 1805, William Strutt invented a warm air heating system which used a furnace to heat air, and a series of ducts to feed the warm air into the rooms, with dampers fitted at the entry points to allow the occupant to regulate the temperature. These “cockle” furnaces were an important step forward.
Whilst fan systems – which blow air across heated surfaces and into the room to be heated – were developed in the early 19th century, they began to gain popularity in the Victorian era, and by the 1890s were quite common in large buildings.
20th Century and beyond
The biggest advances were, of course, the popularity of oil and gas fired heating systems, and after them electrical systems – and thanks to the Clean Air Act of 1956, these systems finally began to overtake coal as the energy source of choice for heating.
Today, whilst we use modern technology to create the most efficient systems possible, industrial heating systems in use today still use many of the same principles as their forebears – and it’s easy to think that we wouldn’t have the comfort we’re used to today without the technology of the Romans.