From smoke to smart: A brief History of Central Heating

Over the years, people have worked out many weird and wonderful ways to heat their homes. We’ve come a long, long way from warming our hands over a campfire in the great outdoors! From the first chimneys to cutting-edge smart devices, here’s your whistle-stop guide to the history of heating…

History of central heating

Turning up the heat in the Bronze Age

For centuries, most people relied on wood or charcoal fires to provide warmth. Several ancient civilisations developed ingenious ways to channel heat through their living spaces.

One of the earliest was the Korean ‘ondol’, a floor-heating device thought to have been developed during the Bronze Age.

History of central heating

Going underground

The ancient Greeks and Romans used a similar kind of technology to build their hypocausts – extensive underfloor systems generally considered to be a forerunner of today’s central heating. They worked by heating the hot air from an underground fire or furnace and pushing the heat up through a system of flues to heat the rooms above.

The Romans perfected it, but when the Roman Empire fell, the hypocaust system completely disappeared and wasn’t revisited for more than a thousand years. That’s a lot of cold winter nights!

History of central heating

Up in smoke

Flues and chimneys had appeared across Europe by the 13th century, so people could use fires indoors, without filling the room with black smoke and making themselves seriously ill.

Open fires remained the most popular choice in Britain, acting as both a heat source and focal point for family gatherings, for centuries.

The history of central heating

On the stove

Stoves, made of brick, earthenware and porcelain, have been used to heat homes in northern Europe for over a thousand years.

Metal wood-burning stoves were more common in America. In 1744, Benjamin Franklin (that’s right, the President) created the innovative metal-lined Franklin Stove, which was used to keep frontier dwellings, farmhouses and urban homes warm for the next 200 years.

History of central heating

The radical radiator

The Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century saw the use of steam as a new power source. This was used to heat factories and mills across the UK, where coal-fired boilers generated steam, which was passed through pipes to standing radiators – the biggest leap in heating innovation for hundreds of years.

British homes were still generally heated by open fires, but now via more efficient fireplaces: carefully shaped cast-iron inserts reflected the heat out into the room, rather than absorbing it.

The history of central heating

Cooking on gas

Gas and electric fires became more commonplace in the 20th century, and initially played the same role as the fireplace, acting as the focal point of the living room.

But by the 1970s, the central heating we know and love was becoming more affordable - and increasingly popular.

The history of central heating

Heating gets smart

Nowadays, there are multiple options to choose from, including oil, gas, electric and even solar-powered heating. One of the most exciting innovations in recent times is the introduction of smart controls, like Hive, which allow you to manage your heating remotely, via your phone or tablet. So, if you want to make sure the home is warm before you open the front door, you can. (Or turn it off, while you’re out, if you forgot!)

Another technological milestone was the creation of smart meters - enabling people to track their energy use in near real-time, help keep energy bill costs down.

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