A Guide To How We’ve Come To Love Our Radiators
With all my regular talk about ‘designer heating’ and ‘making style statements’, I often forget that a radiator has one primary function above all else – to keep you, your family, your home and your stuff warm and dry.
Kicking out heat, drying clothes, warming our feet and keeping us toasty, radiators are a staple feature of almost every single modern home, office, hospital and beyond.
We’re even at a point in human evolution where our heating systems can learn what kind of people we are, how warm we like to be and when we’re coming home.
But where did it all begin?
Who’s responsible for our present comfort and how did they come up with the idea for a radiator?
To answer these questions and uncover why we live in a country that boasts around 190 million radiators, I thought I’d take a deeper look at the History of the Radiator and try to discover how we came to rely upon these hot metal boxes for warmth, comfort and now, even style.
The Beginning of Home Heating
Before I delve deep into the past and give you the low-down on the chequered history of the radiator, it’s important for us to look at how heating our homes has developed over time.
Obviously, our cave dwelling ancestors didn’t benefit from all of the creature comforts that we enjoy today – they were much more inclined to gather around a pit fire, with thoughts of central heating and fireplaces undoubtedly far from their tiny prehistoric minds.
Heating has evolved beyond all recognition since those days – for a start, we heat ‘homes’ now and not caves and – as you may expect from a species that boasts roughly 6,500 different languages – there are a number of different cultures that have contributed to how we go about keeping those homes warm.
Far from being brutish thug-like creatures with huge heads and a dumb outlook on the world, Neanderthal man was quite the innovator when it came to heating his home.
Evidence suggests that, 420,000 years ago, hearths were being used in what is now modern-day Ukraine.
Made from Mammoth bones and featuring a grass roof, these little pods were the first examples (after caves) of humanoids employing primitive home heating techniques.
It’s a mystery why they died out really, considering they had the forethought to build a house they could take anywhere, and that could accommodate a fire to keep them warm.
Elsewhere in Europe, our old ‘friends’ (and invaders) The Romans can be credited with an early form of central heating, thanks to the invention of the hypocaust.
Vitruvius – the famous Roman author – attributed the invention of this early home heating technique to Sergius Orata, a hydraulic engineer and celebrated Roman innovator.
The system was used for heating public bath houses and various other buildings and consisted of hot air and smoke from a furnace being circulated through an enclosed area under the floor – an early form of underfloor heating you might say.
The warmth and smoke passed under rooms that required heating and out through flues in the walls; a system that required constant attention and a ready supply of fuel to keep the fire stoked.
This design shows that the Romans clearly understood the principles behind heat transfer systems and what forcing heat through the hypocausts would achieve.
But it wasn’t just our Roman chums that operated this kind of home heating.
In The East
Bronze Age Koreans were using a similar setup, known as Ondol, as far back as 1000BC – a design that’s possibly even older than the Roman hypocaust.
Found at many archaeological sites throughout present-day North Korea, this traditional type of architecture was very similar to the Roman model, using direct heat transfer from wood and smoke to heat the underside of a deep masonry floor.
The key difference between the Hypocaust and the Ondol was the latter’s long winding underfloor flue, which channelled air to keep it moving towards the exit at a faster rate.
Unlike its Korean counterpart, the hypocaust floor was ‘just’ an open chamber that didn’t direct the smoke or air in any way – though both designs were equally very clever.
The Korean system was arguably more efficient than the Roman’s, as the ondol used heat from the kitchen fire to warm the entire house – effectively doubling the use of the heat source – a very energy conscious approach for something that’s over 3000 years old!
It wasn’t just the Romans that used the Hypocaust, it was also used to heat Turkish baths during the Ottaman Empire and was even used to heat a public bath (Hammam) in the citadel town of Erbil, in what is now modern-day Iraq.
The Next Generation
There were a couple of thousand years between the early smoke and fire designs of the Romans and Koreans and the first water based heating systems.
By the start of the 18th century, it was the turn of Russian engineers to take up the home heating mantle and – faced with months of sub-zero temperatures – they eventually managed to pull together a design for water based central heating.
The Summer Palace of Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg was the place that benefitted from this innovative approach to heating, becoming the first building in the city to have piped water.
The system featured a selection of solid fuel burning boilers and was completed by an elaborate white and blue ductwork made of porcelain.
But that’s where the story ends in Russia (for the time being at least) as a new heating story is unfolding in America, thanks to one of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin.
The Franklin Stove
In 1741, some 30 years after Peter the Great had added piped water to his palace home, Benjamin Franklin created a metal-lined fireplace that transferred more heat to a room than any that had gone before it.
The two features that set the Franklin stove apart were a hollow ‘baffle’ – a metal panel that helped to direct the flow of fumes from the fire – and a flue that acted as an upside-down type of siphon.
This clever design wasn’t entirely new, as something similar was being employed around 100 years before in Germany, but Franklin took it to a different level – creating a system that allowed fuel to burn at a far greater efficiency – with a baffle right behind the fire directing heat and fumes on a longer path.
Directing the fire’s exhausts on a longer path meant that you had more time to extract heat from the fumes – the longer it took for the fumes to escape, the longer you benefitted from the heat they gave off.
This system stuck around and remained popular for a long time, but over the other side of the pond, something different was heating up…
The Brits Get Involved
In England, once the technology for maintaining steam generation became possible, a steady stream of systems making use of steam heating began to appear.
The idea had first been proposed at the end of the 18th century by a chap named William Cook, but didn’t actually become a reality till steam engine pioneers Matthew Boulton and James Watt had steam heating systems installed in their own properties in the 1790’s – at the time, Watt even attempted a primitive radiator, constructed from soldered copper sheeting.
Steam heating progressed slowly at first, being confined to heating a few mills and factories in England, before the USA – happy to embrace the import of ideas and equipment from us Brits – began to take up the method too.
A number of steam systems were installed after 1810 that used exhaust steam from a high-pressure steam engine – effectively making them free to use – these found their way into a number of large buildings, including the White House and The Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
But residential steam systems didn’t begin to take hold until the late 1840’s when a Connecticut stove maker, Stephen Gold began experimenting with steam and the first ‘radiators’ began to make an impression.
The First Radiators Ever
Though not ‘officially’ credited as being the first man to use the first radiator (we’ll get to that guy in a minute), Stephen Gold did construct a device made from two dimpled iron sheets that were riveted together – this would later come to be known as the ‘mattress radiator’.
I couldn’t find any pictures, but here’s a link to Gold’s US patent for his ‘Improvement in Warming Houses by Steam’ project.
The mattress radiator was made continuously for around 50 years, following its inception in 1854, and after that, many manufacturers began making radiators and boilers of various designs.
Looking at a lot of these early incarnations of the radiator, most of them could be considered works of art in their own right, with hugely elaborate and ornate designs being the mainstay of many private properties.
As far as the modern radiator – as we understand it – is concerned, there’s a fair bit of dispute between who made the first one, with an almost (and pardon the pun) ‘Cold War’ kind of feel to who did or didn’t make it to the radiator promised land first.
If you search for the ‘History of the Radiator’, most of what you find surrounds a certain Mr Franz Sans Galli – a Polish-born, Russian inventor.
He has been credited with inventing the heating radiator – famously giving it the name ‘hot-box’ – but his status as the inventor of the radiator is often disputed.
The reason for this is that, at around the same time in America, there was not only Mr Gold but a fair collection of others that were developing something similar to the hot-box.
According to one source, the development and mass production of radiators was an entirely American phenomenon.
Gold’s patent may have a date in the year 1854, but there are a few others that date back as far as 1841 – these variously shaped ‘heat distributors’ featured a mix of metal plates and pipes, but none are considered to be what we understand as the ‘modern’ radiator design seen today.
The History of the Modern Radiator
The one radiator invention that has come to receive more worldwide recognition than any other – and contributed more to what we understand as a ‘modern’ radiator design – is ‘The Bundy Loop’.
Developed by Nelson H. Bundy in 1872, the Bundy Loop was a cast iron radiator system that featured loops screwed into a cast iron base – and even came in a circular version!
Designed to run from a steam system, it was one of the most successful and popular designs of its day; being copied by many different manufacturers, some of whom began to introduce their own detailing and patterns to the design.
The Bundy Loop, alongside the designs of the inventive American duo, Joseph Nason and Robert Biggs, can be seen in the differing styles of radiators that we see today.
This rise in radiator popularity saw the number of manufacturers producing radiators increase at a fair pelt – making the Victorian era one of the most important ever, in the advancement of domestic heating and the rise of the radiator.
The American Radiator Company
Out of the competition to rule the radiator landscape came, The American Radiator Company.
The Microsoft of its day, The American Radiator Company boasted that it was: “The largest makers of radiators in the world.”
And they were not wrong.
By the start of the 20th Century, the company had outlets across Europe, manufacturing cast iron baths, brass bathroom fittings and more.
One of their German factories was even used to manufacture shells for the German Empire during the First World War.
The Radiators of Today
It’s safe to say that the single most important period for the development of the radiator is the Victorian era.
This period – towards the end of the 19th century – is when radiators became more than just boxes that gave off heat and were seen as more decorative items that could transform the way a room looks.
This understanding of practicality meeting style is very similar to what we see today in modern homes.
Yes, there may have been a period where people were covering their radiators up and hiding them away, but those days are effectively at an end.
The trend for restoring period properties and bringing together traditional styling and modern interiors has seen an increase – in the last decade or so – of people embracing older styles, restoring old radiators and investing in contemporary radiators with a period twist.
In the UK, cast iron radiators may have largely been replaced by steel designs in the 1970’s, but they still remain popular due to their ability to hold on to heat much longer, and some steel radiators have even been made to look like the old school ones too.
The new and improved designs and the use of better materials mean that, despite the spectre of underfloor heating and the ever increasing speed at which home automation is finding its way into our lives, there will always be a spot on the wall for the humble ‘hot-box’.
After all, where would the cat sit on a cold day?
John trained in journalism before finding his way to the BestHeating Advice Centre team. He uses his journalism skills to meticulously research heating topics and bring you the latest news and views on all things home heating related. He’ll also beat you at any sport that involves a cue!