Fires, Furnaces & Forges

Home heating has a history dating back over a million years, and the story of heating is interesting. We borrowed from ACHR News who discussed how home heating began. It also ended-up helping to define Downtown Utica's CoLa Neighborhood.

Home and commercial heating has evolved over the years pointing out that the very first use of heat for comfort happened 1.5 million years ago. This was when early man gathered around campfires for warmth. As time progressed, they moved those campfires to the inside of their caves and huts, placing the fire in the center of their living space.

Next in the evolution included creating fires in other dwelling. Using stones to create a makeshift hearth, and then progressed around 2500 BC, when fixed central fireplaces were developed in Greece. Excavators have discovered hearths, fireplaces, stoves, and then under-floor systems in 13th century castles. For example, in 1300 BC, Turkish King Arzawa was likely the first person to effectively use under-floor radiant heating in his castle.

Romans perfected on this and even moved the system into building walls. These heating systems, known as hypocaust systems, were used to heat the homes of wealthy Romans, but also were used to heat the famous public baths throughout the Roman Empire. Interestingly, these systems operated at about 90 percent efficiency, but unfortunately the technology was lost with the fall of Rome.

During the Dark Ages, there was very little progress in made in heating; in fact, chimneys didn’t begin to appear in writings and literature until after the 14th century. In the 1600s, when French inventor Louis Savot created a circulating fireplace, the innovation allowed cold room air to enter the room from the bottom, get warmed in the fireplace, and then blow back into the room through openings.

Throughout the 1600s-1700s, more and more improvements in fireplace design were made, and individuals like Benjamin Thompson, published construction manuals on the subject. In the United States, Dr. John Clarke of the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought heating to the colonies via his invention of the cast iron box stove in 1652.

By the mid-1700s, the cast iron box stove was being regularly manufactured at foundries throughout the colonies. Innovations continued throughout the next two centuries. By the 1900s, different versions of the cast iron stove were being made by numerous manufacturers.

The Industrial Revolution provided the catalyst for more advanced warm-air systems. In England about 1805, William Strutt invented a warm-air furnace that consisted of a riveted, wrought iron air chamber encased in brick.

Blower furnace unit were not widely available to the public until the 1930s. Boilers appeared in the mid-1800s as a variety were manufactured right in Utica. Radiators appeared later, and by the 1880s, cast iron radiators had become very popular.

By the 1920s, most homes had automatic heating systems and one firm still offering such is ERC, who carries on the “Utica Boiler” brand.

Additional Resources

Beyond fireplaces: Historic heating methods of the 19th century

History of Home Heating: From Fire in a Cave to an Electric Fireplace

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