A Brief History of Heating

From prehistoric campfires to ancient central heating, humans have long found a wide variety of ways to heat their dwellings. This holiday season, we give thanks for the many advancements and innovations that brought us the home heating we have today by looking at the heating methods of the past.

Prehistoric Heating

The discovery of fire forever changed the course of mankind—not only could open flames be used to cook food and keep predators away, but they could also provide a consistent source of heat. Though fires required significant effort to maintain, this discovery allowed communities to expand to colder, more remote locations. As time went on, homes were constructed with open holes in the roofs so that smoke could escape and hearths were built to contain fire within a designated area.

Ancient Heating

Although it may seem like a 20th-century invention, central heating dates back to 2500 B.C. The ancient Greeks heated marble temples by using an indoor fire in the basement. They would then propel the heat through pipes beneath the floor. Heat would travel through the stone floors and into the space above, bringing warmth to the room. The Romans would later refine this underfloor heating, also known as a hypocaust, by raising the floors roughly two feet to allow room for hot air to circulate and enter space built within the walls. Even still, this initial method of heating was not easy to attain. Manual labor was required to continuously tend to the fire and propel the heat and only the wealthy could afford it.

Heating in the Middle Ages

The period between the fall of Rome (463 A.D.) and the beginning of the Renaissance (14th century), saw a lull in heating advancements, as most people went back to using the rudimentary fireplaces of prehistoric times. Progression continued shortly after as chimneys became more widespread during the 1500s, as did stoves that performed double duties—heating and cooking. 

Heating From the 18th to 20th Centuries

By the 18th century, various innovations continued the development of home heating. While some pursued working with heat sources of the past, such as Ben Franklin’s wood-burning stove used exclusively for heating, other inventors looked for alternatives. 

Steam began gaining popularity in the late 1700s with James Watt’s heating system using a central boiler and pipes. Later, in the 1800s, some households started using radiant heat—piping steam from boilers to iron radiators. William Strutt continued the progression of home heating with his use of ducts and dampers with his warm-air furnace as he discovered a new way to move warm air to rooms throughout the house. Coal also became a preferred heating fuel and, with the invention of the damper flapper by Albert Butz in the 1880s, airflow control was finally automated. However, when the sulfur dioxide from burning coal began to create acid rain in urban areas, many households pivoted to oil-burning furnaces thanks to M.A. Fessler. Electric heating also gained traction in the 1800s. Thomas Edison’s electric heater in 1883 sparked the start of portable home heating and further strides in electric heating were made into the 1900s.

In 1919, the first central heating system, fueled by natural gas, was patented by Alice Parker. From then on, natural gas became highly prevalent in home heating, as roughly half of American homes are heated with natural gas today. Breakthroughs in technology also brought about the heat pump, which grew in popularity due to the oil crisis in the 1980s, and programmable thermostats, which were capable of controlling both heating and cooling by the 1960s. With each development, home heating became a standard, not a luxury.

Heating Now

Homeowners today enjoy heating options that their great-grandparents could only have dreamed of. With continued improvements, we can now enjoy home heating at the press of a button.

Whether you heat your home with a radiator, a central furnace, or a heat pump, the next time you turn on your heater, give a quick thanks to those who came before you—and whose innovations brought cozy comfort to your home. North East Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing is proud to serve the San Antonio area and help bring warmth to your home this holiday season. Give us a call today to learn the heating options available to you.


Header Photo by Stéphane Juban on Unsplash


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