Hot off the Press – A Brief History of Heating

Photo credit Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit Wikimedia Commons

Monty Python’s hilarious and controversial 1979 film The Life of Brian contains any number of seminal scenes, being as it is one of the greatest comedy films ever made. Set in the Judea of the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus’s crucifixion, the film, as the name suggests, charts the life of Brian, who has the bad luck to be confused with a messiah – the Romans were not big on dissent, as you probably know…

Anyhow, one scene shows a meeting of misfiring rebels who, traducing the Romans, demand ‘what have they ever done for us?’ What follows is a long list of societal benefits, including sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health. One thing they missed there, however, is central heating. The fools…

Yes, those ingenious Romans (more of which you can find out about here) pioneered what we would now call central heating. This didn’t require radiators, as a hypocaust system would heat the air via a furnace and circulate it under floors to provide warmth. This setup was replicated sporadically over the coming centuries across Europe but unfortunately the dark ages followed, where people were far too preoccupied with charming medieval things like gout and pestilence to consider artful heating solutions.

In what is perhaps a grand expression of logic, the first water-based heating systems have been traced to Russia, a place where the sun would freeze if it came too close to the gelid ground. Home of the Nobel, Sweden, had the first functioning water-based heating system, while the Swedish engineer Triewald brought this idea over the North Sea to heat a greenhouse in Newcastle. In turn, steam heating systems were first installed in homes in the 1830s.

What we would now view as the absolute essential of a central heating system, the radiator, came into being at some time in the 1850s. From a number of rudimentary designs put forward the so-called ‘Bundy Loop’ of 1872, the brainchild of Nelson H Bundy, remains the most influential to this day.

In part due to the Industrial Revolution reaching its zenith, the Victorian period saw the radiator becoming an essential functional feature. The traditional radiators of those days were made of cast iron, which rendered them heavy but heat-retentive. As central heating became more widespread as the 20th century moved on, cast iron gave way in many areas to steel, although units were still considered functional, and hence daubed in drab paint or hidden away.

The real change in radiator design is apparent now, with vertical and horizontal models boasting a number of differently-shaped panels; yes, radiators are now a cool item (in the sense of fashionable, not cold – that wouldn’t do for a radiator really). The array of finishes on offer, from black radiators to chrome units, means they stand alone as a design statement. Advances in materials technology, particularly with regard to low carbon steel, mean radiators last practically forever, providing wonderful corrosion resistance and strength.

The final leap has been into the realm of electric radiators. While admittedly these have yet to gain universal acceptance, they have added another dimension to the home central heating system. This is because the addition of electric elements in standard radiators has produced the dual fuel rail. The advantage here is that you can activate radiators in isolation – for summertime towel drying for instance – without having to waste energy in firing up the entire system.

So there you have it, heating from the Romans to us. Fair enough, theirs was a civilisation to admire but also one to flinch from – after all, it led to Russell Crowe in a leather skirt.


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