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Now that the winter chill is setting down over Lake Forest, IL, residents are already using central heating systems to stay comfortable through the winter. The furnace is a basic symbol of mankind’s struggle to beat back the elements and forge civilization. Learning about the history of furnaces can do a great deal to increase appreciation for a system that nearly everyone uses but few think deeply about.

An Anomaly From Ancient Rome

Central heating as we understand it today had really been impossible before the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Humans did find ways to keep warm before then, of course, but these involved either building open fires or constructing wood-burning furnaces with chimneys that channeled and removed smoke. One fascinating exception to this rule, however, comes from the early Roman Empire.

We call that exception the hypocaust. This was a gigantic underground furnace system that the Romans used to heat public buildings, like religious temples and baths, and the first records allegedly mentioning it date back to about 15 CE. In effect, the system functioned much like a radiator.

The furnace would burn and generate hot steam and smoke, which would then warm the floor of the building positioned above it via direct radiation. More steam and smoke would also travel through pipes inside the walls, thereby also warming the walls.

Heating in the 18th and 19th Centuries

After the fall of Rome, it was rare to see Europeans build anything else like the hypocaust for many centuries, and indoor heating essentially reverted to the use of wood-burning furnaces. In 1742, however, Benjamin Franklin did produce a slight advancement when he invented his version of the fireplace.

The so-called Franklin stove was a cast iron fireplace that featured adjustable baffles, giving the user far greater control over the flow of air into the firebox. The cast iron design also improved efficiency because iron conducted heat far better than stone did. Therefore, the Franklin stove was better able to warm homes through heat radiation.

Advancements in heating technology did not truly pick up until the 19th century when some claim that the Russian inventor and engineer Franz San Galli invented the radiator. While he received a patent for this invention in 1857, the American Joseph Nason developed a more primitive version of it 16 years earlier. All of Nason’s patents, though, concerned hot-water-generated and steam-generated heating.

Two years before San Galli’s patent, the German scientist Robert Bunsen invented the Bunsen burner. Then, as now, this device appears almost exclusively in laboratories, but the fact that Bunsen was able to generate a flame without producing soot was a major step forward for heating technology. It set into motion all of the propane and other gas-powered technologies that furnaces use today.

Electric heating arose in tandem with gas-related developments when, in 1882, Thomas Edison opened the first electrical power station in America. In 1905, Albert Marsh co-discovered chromel, a metal made of 80% nickel and 20% chromium. Its extraordinary strength made it an ideal material for high-resistance wires, which electrical heating systems use to this day.

Finally, in 1885, Dave Lennox invented a coal-burning radiator made of cast iron. His machine operated in basements, relied on convection and would be the first modern central heating system.


Alice Parker officially obtained a patent for the very first central heating system in America in 1919. Like many of today’s furnaces, it was gas-powered, drew in cold air from outside and used ducts to distribute air around the home after warming.

Decades later, others would get the idea to use fans to push warm air through ducts. Afterward, furnace technology would gradually advance until an entire temperature control network emerged that involved thermostats. This finally gave us the modern furnace as we know it.

Your ability to stay warm through Lake Forest, IL’s frigid winters is the culmination of centuries of hard work, invention and discovery. To maximize your comfort this winter, call Ireland Heating & Air Conditioning Co. and request our heating services.

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