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A Brief History of the Central Heating System

Today we tend to take for granted living indoors at a comfortable even temperature. In winter especially, central heating has really changed our lives quite dramatically.

Without it people had to spend hours carting about coal, lighting fires, keeping fires going, and they still had to wear masses of clothes indoors.

To make a heating system completely automatic and reliable has taken an enormous amount of effort and ingenuity.

We thought we’d bring this somewhat retro TV programme that was aired on Channel 4 titled “The Secret life of the Central Heating System”.

This 25 minute programme briefly explains the history surrounding the central heating system and how it keeping our homes warm is something we’ve all come to take for granted.

The presenter explains how central heating systems evolved and a little about how they work.

In ancient times our ancestors used to heat themselves by lighting fires. The programme shows how fired are actually very difficult to start without the use of modern gadgets such as matches and lighters. Rubbing sticks together, or using a bow drill, takes a lot of skill and practice if you want to start a fire.

The Romans

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The Romans used to heat their homes and  very sensibly never let their fires go out if they could possibly help it.

At first the Romans simply had a fire in the middle of their living room. The Latin for hearth is ‘focus’. The fire was literally the focus of the room, but they probably had trouble with the smoke as the Latin for living room is ‘atterimus’, as in ‘ater’ meaning black. So they started putting the fire outside in a furnace with cavities under the floors and in the walls. But the Romans were rather decadent and just as they were getting comfortable their civilisation declined and fell, and houses once again became very smokey.

The Normans

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The next attempt to improve matters was made by the Normans. They made holes in their castle walls and tried to funnel the smoke out sideways. However, the hot gasses from a fire naturally rise so to make a chimney draw it has it point upwards. The Normans finally realised this in the  early thirteenth century when castles started to incorporate real chimneys.

The Eighteenth Century

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By the eighteenth century chimneys were regarded as indispensable in Britain and hardly any buildings were put up without them. Even Chiswick House, which was intended to be an exact replica of an Italian design by Palladio. At the last minute the design was modified to include 4 large chimneys on each side. Lord Burlington had the house built after returning from the Grand Tour of Europe, fired with an enthusiasm for Palladion architecture, but he obviously felt that comfort was more important than aesthetics.

Although we designed open fires made houses almost comfortable, this sort of heat was totally unsuitable for the tropical greenhouses that came into fashion in the eighteenth century. An even heat was required for the plants that was totally smoke free. At first the Roman system of central heating was revived. Fired were lit behind the greenhouse and smoke was drawn up through cavities in the walls. The walls became hot and this created the warmth the plants needed.

The Industrial Revolution

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The eighteenth century was also the start of the industrial revolution and steam power was really the miracle of the age. So all the fires behind the walls were replaced by a central boiler and steam, or hot water, was fed through these enormous pipes that acted as radiators. In fact these systems are remarkably similar to the modern domestic central heating systems. These pipes too up much more space than today’s small bore pipes and ultra thin radiators but the principle is really exactly the same.

One of the worst problems of using steam is scale. High temperatures increase the effect. Even using a water softener causes all sorts of difficulties. Steam is also very hard to regulate.

Steam heating remained popular in America for large buildings but hot water systems have far fewer problems and quickly replaced steam for domestic use.

Commercial exploitation of central heating systems for private houses didn’t really start until the 1920’s. At first it was only installed in luxury houses but it quickly spread to the mass market, first being incorporated on a wide scale in the new suburban housing estates of the 1930’s.

The Modern Central Heating System

Since then many different types of central heating have been developed, but the hot water and radiator type has remained the most common.

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