All Fired Up

All Fired Up

by Lisa De Silva

From the luxury of our centrally-heated homes it is hard to imagine how our ancestors managed to keep warm and cosy during the cold winter months. Here we take a look at past methods used to keep us warm, along with their influence on modern day trends.

Interestingly the Latin word for hearth is ‘focus’ because in days of old, a fire was the central feature of any home. In fact, long before language had evolved, a fire for warmth and cooking was essential to man’s survival.

This basic heat source was given a sophisticated spin by the Romans who developed hypocaust-heating systems. This method pumped heated air into open spaces beneath buildings, acting as an early version of underfloor heating, which is still a fashionable choice for contemporary homes today. Yet when the Romans left our shores in AD 410, we reverted back to living in smoky mud huts. Living amidst the grime and smoke must have been awful, despite the addition of a central hole in the roof for the smog to escape.

Life continued like this for hundreds of years until the Normans conceived the chimney. This development finally meant that in 14th century Europe the hearth no longer had to occupy the centre of the room, but could be moved against a wall with a chimney stack above it. Having said that, it still took around 200 years for the chimney to catch on, but by the 16th century they were more commonplace, as was the use of coal as a source of heat energy.

The next major development came in the 18th century with the invention of stove heating. In 1742, in colonial America, Benjamin Franklin created a metal-lined fireplace, The Franklin Stove, which stood in the middle of the room. This provided more heat and produced less smoke than an open fireplace. What’s more it used less wood, with the cast iron furnace radiating heat throughout the room long after the fire itself had gone out. Say hello to the increasingly popular modern day wood burning stove.

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that central heating became a practical reality. With steam power heralded as the miracle of the age, fires were replaced by boilers which pushed steam or hot water through a series of enormous pipes which radiated heat. The pipes took up an enormous amount of space, but in 1857, the first radiator was invented in Russia, a development which helped this type of hot water heating system to flourish.

Shortly after this in 1883, Thomas Edison invented the first electric heater. So, we now had a choice of open fires, stove heating, hot water central heating or electric heating. Despite this, uptake was slow, possibly owing to the huge costs involved in setting up a heating system. In fact, modern day central heating really only became a ‘must have’ as recently as the 1970s and today only around 7% of UK homes no longer have it.

The initial trend was to block up the old Georgian and Victorian fireplaces, this has since been reversed, with many homes reviving these beauties, to once again become the focal point of the room.

Today, environmental concerns have led to more renewable heat sources being used to power our heating systems, such as solar, air and ground source heat pumps, alongside the more usual heat sources of oil, gas and electricity.

Moreover, advances in technology have led to the development of smart heating allowing us to be both energy and cost efficient when heating our homes. Smart radiator valves can be controlled from a mobile phone to turn heat on and off in individual rooms, while smart thermostats learn temperature preferences and adapt to your lifestyle, switching off heat when you leave for work and creating the ideal temperature for your return. Weekly profiles of heat consumption can be monitored to maximise energy savings and cost efficiency.

What would our ancestors think?