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We are all thankful for central heating at this time of year, and we thought we would look at the early years of central heating history.

Being able to heat our environment is an essential part of survival in cold-climate countries.

We have been heating our homes since man ‘discovered’ fire or at least managed to bend it to his will, this happened some 200,000-400,000 years ago. A broad span of time, but experts differ on what constitutes use of fire in domestic terms.

Man used fire as the first way to keep warm

Open Fire

Early man would have used an open fire to keep warm, cook and deter predators. As a source of heat an open fire is primitive. Most of the heat rises up away from the bodies around it, and it generates a lot of smoke which is inconvenient in an enclosed space.

When fires were used in early dwellings there would have been a trade off between the heat required and smoke to tolerate. Chimneys, which would have been a simple hole to begin with, helped with the removal of smoke. In Europe the earliest record of a chimney is in a Swiss Monastery in AD820, but they did not become commonplace until the 12th Century.


With the development of the chimney a fire could be moved from its central location in a room to a perimeter wall. The fire then started to become enclosed by a fireplace. The invention of the fireplace made the fire safer and less smokey. It also allowed the whole hearth and surround to heat up which radiates some heat into the room rather than losing all the heat up the chimney.

Kang and Ondol

We shouldn’t forget that while this was the history of heating in Europe, China had already had heated beds call Kangs and the Koreans had developed heated floors called Ondol meaning Warm Stone. These development went on between 10,000 and 5,000 BC. They often used charcoal for heating rather than wood as it is much less smokey.

Kangs were developed in Northern China where the winters can be very harsh. They are still used in some homes and guest houses. They consist of a raised area or platform in a room. There is a furnace underneath which heats the whole platform area. Traditionally these would have been heated by charcoal or even coal. At night bedding is laid down and the whole family sleep on the Kang to keep warm. During the day bedding is rolled up and the area is used for daytime activities.

The Korean Ondol system is similar to the Chinese Kang but the whole floor is heated. A raided masonry floor is heated from beneath using the smoke and heat from a fire lit in a fireplace or stove in an adjoining room (often a kitchen). There is a chimney at the opposite side of the room to allow the smoke to escape.The family would traditionally live and sleep in this heated room during cold weather.

Both of these systems make use of the benefits of body heat. By everyone in the household using the same space at night, as well as during the day, their body heat is shared into the room. Also by only heating one room it is much more efficient than heating many individual rooms.

Roman Heating

The Romans are often credited with inventing central heating, but they probably got the idea from the Ancient Greeks and the Koreans were way ahead of them. Although without the internet it is unlikely that the Greeks were influenced directly by the Koreans.

Whoever invented the idea, the Romans definitely brought their Hypocaust heating systems to Britain. Our primitive hearths must have made them shudder especially with their penchant for wearing sandals in all weathers.

The hypocaust system had a central fire which was fired by wood, or by coal in the UK as it could be surface mined and was more efficient and less smokey than wood to burn. The heat from the fire was then distributed under hollow floors as well as through pipes and ducts in the wall, to give an even and effective heating system. It was obviously an expensive and labour intensive process to keep the buildings warm in this way, but they had slaves and servants for cheap labour.

Roman settlements usually had shared bath houses, which allowed a much more efficient use of fuel to heat water and create steam for saunas.

Underfloor heating today

Underfloor heating went out of fashion when the Romans left Britain, but it has started to become more popular again. If you want to know more about types of heating for your home you can browse through our projects section on the main site. If you are interested in underfloor heating then you can start with our project using water for underfloor heating systems.

Underfloor water heating pipes under a timber floor.

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