Keeping warm is a luxury for some and a necessity for others. History correspondent, Paul Yunnie, explains the full circle of central heating.

Hidden beneath the floors of many Roman villas that remain in Northern Europe are hypocaust heating systems; heated chambers for the floors that also rise up within wall spaces. These are the earliest version of central heating.

Once the Romans retreated to Rome, their legacy faded. Open fires became the norm. Often situated in the centre of the main room, smoke was left to find its own way out. In the 11th to 13th centuries there was an attempt to improve the design in large establishments, including palaces and castles.

With a living room on the first floor, a fireplace on an outside wall became commonplace but draft was not taken into account and early examples still coughed out smoke.

Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford), an American based in England after siding with the losing side in the American War of Independence, set about improving the fireplace. In 1796, his experiments on heat lead him to publish Of Chimney Fireplaces, with Proposals for Improving them to Save Fuel, to Render Dwelling Houses more Comfortable and Salubrious and Effectively to Prevent Chimneys from Smoking. In the essay he proposed a narrower front, reduced depth to the fire place with inclined sides, narrowed the exit to the chimney to form an s-bend and introduced a flue damper.

The alternative was to enclose the fire and have a chimney out to the atmosphere; a stove. A good stove can be four times as efficient as an open fire, and of course smokeless.

Although many smaller stoves were developed for individual room heating they were never as popular in England as in continental Europe or America. One exception was the Gurney stove developed by Goldsworthy Gurney. These large finned stoves were particularly well suited to large open spaces including cathedrals and abbeys. Patented in 1856, many still remain in service. Having first been fired by solid fuel, many have been converted for oil and/or natural gas.

We have now come full circle with underfloor heating in vogue. While it has all been done before, with modern material and techniques, they do tend to work a little better.

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