A Brief History: Central Heating

A Brief History: Central Heating


When spending time with family and friends this holiday season, you are likely to stay comfortable and cozy in your home thanks to a central heating system. Much like central air conditioning, the ability to heat homes has allowed us to sent up residence in parts of the world that are bitterly cold (you know, below 50°F). We take so many of out climate control options for granted, but how is it that central heating came to be so important in our daily lives during the winter months?


The Good Old Days

Central heating is not a new concept – the ancient Greeks and Romans used a version of central heating in important buildings, sending warm air through flues located under the floor. They used fire as the main source of heat, while physics moved the warm air up and through the flues. After the fall of the Roman empire, many in Europe reverted to using traditional methods of fireplaces and stoves to heat buildings, although there are instances of early central heating technology copied from the Greeks and Romans being used in pockets of the region.

It wasn’t until the late 1700s-1800s that central heating began to see an increased interest from the public. For many regions of Europe, central heating system using air were the focus of technological advancement. In these systems, a “central” furnace (usually installed in the basement) was used to heat air, which was then guided through buildings using ductwork. Over the years, these systems were refined and upgraded, as new sources of fuel and building materials became available.


A Dangerous Price For Comfort

Boilers, which allow hot water to be used in home heating, also have an interesting history. Benjamin Waddy Maughn invented one of the first modern boilers in 1868. This iron behemoth was powered using gas, and was capable of both heating a home and providing a ready source of hot water. Called “The Geyser,” it did not have a flue or vent, which meant excess pressure had no way to escape. Which means the giant iron boiler had a tendency to explode, causing catastrophic damage and injuries. Surprisingly, this inconvenience did not stop the public from purchasing the device, so high was the demand for convenient indoor heating.

Of course later boilers corrected this major error in design, providing safer water-based home heating options. But what did remain dangerous well into the 20th century were the fuel sources used to power both furnace and boiler systems. Prior to natural gas becoming readily available as an energy source, coal gas was used to power many central heating systems. However, this was problematic because coal gas was extremely dangerous, as it contains a lot of carbon monoxide. If you have ever watched old movies, you have likely seen a scene where someone has been overcome or died due to “gas.” The murderer was coal gas, which could render people unconscious in a matter of minutes, and kill in only a few minutes more.


The Modern Age

With the realization of natural gas’ use as a much safer energy source, electricity becoming more and more available, and improved materials such as stainless steel, both boilers and furnaces came into the modern era and are now commonly found in most homes. In the South, however, we have a lot of heat pumps, devices that can be used as both air conditioner and heater. In the late 1940s, Robert C. Webber is credited with developing the first heat pump that could be easily used in homes after he burned his hands on the pipes behind his home freezer. “Could I reverse this process?” he thought, and because a great success after finding a way to do so.

Now, we are in a time where new technologies are continuing to improve how we heat our homes. Advances in home building materials, new energy sources such as solar and geothermal, and smart thermostats are all leading us into a new era of home comfort with increased efficiency. We have come a long way from the standard fireplace of yesteryear!