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A Short History of Central Heating

The history of home heating begins many thousands of years ago. Long before Man learned how to make fire, he learned it's benefits--sustaining warmth, cooked food, light to keep at bay the terrors of the night. These must have seemed random gifts from the inexplicable gods of lightning, volcanic eruptions and forest fires.

Fast forward thousands of years, and not much had changed. Our ancestors were still huddled around fires, broiling in front, freezing in back, wreathed in smoke and suffering from the original poor indoor air quality.

It was the ancient Greeks and Romans who finally raised civilization and comfortable living to a new level. The Roman version of central heating, called the hypocaust, consisted of hollow channels or flues built into walls and floors that allowed warm air to circulate from fires in a room below.

Most Romans experienced the comfort of central heating in the public baths and other public buildings. Only patrician Roman could afford this luxury in their homes, where it was confined mostly to the bedrooms. The common citizens continued to rely on smoky, open fires or braziers for what little warmth they could get.

On the other side of the world, the Koreans came up with their own version of central heating, possibly as early as the birth of Christ, and the Chinese experimented with an early form of stove to heat their rooms.

In the Western world the fires of central heating were extinguished along with most of the other trappings of civilization when Rome fell beneath the tidal wave of invasion by the Germanic tribes. Kings and commoners, princes and paupers again had to rely on the meager comfort of open fires, with their smoke, dirt and wildly uneven heat. The Dark Ages weren't only dark, they were cold, too, with only a few exceptions.

The Cistercian monks of the 13th century Royal Monastery of our Lady of the Wheel enjoyed the comfort of a central heating system and the convenience of indoor plumbing while living in the rugged borderland between Europe and the Muslim world, in the Aragon region of Spain. The systems can still be seen today. On the other side of that border, in Syria and in bath-houses through much of the medieval Islamic world, central heating continued to be used. But for nearly everyone else in the Middle East and Europe, home heating still meant an open fire, smoke, fumes and cold comfort.

The Chimney Rises

Fast forward again, this time a few hundred years, to the next great advance in home heating comfort: The invention of the chimney, and along with it the fireplace. Historians aren't quite sure when the chimney appeared. But there is evidence that the first chimneys may have come into use in the 12th century.

Whenever they appeared, the first chimneys were inefficient. They didn't draw well, and left almost as much smoke in the room as an open fire. But they were a start. By trial and error over a couple of centuries, people gradually learned how to design and build a more effective chimney.

By the beginning of the 16th century, chimneys were becoming commonplace, at least in England. And it was around this time, too, that invention and innovation began to move at a quicker pace throughout Europe. Hard on the heels of Columbus' discovery of America, Spain and Portugal embarked on their era of global colonization. The Protestant Reformation began changing the face of western religion. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The pocket watch was invented and coffee came to Europe.

Through the next 200 years, central heating began to slowly return to domestic life. Around 1700 it was introduced in the Russian Summer Palace of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, and Swedish, French and English systems soon followed.

Franklin Invents His Stove

By the late 17th century, the next major improvement in home comfort had appeared--and this one was huge-- the invention of the "circulating" stove. But it was left to Ben Franklin several decades later to improve the design and give it his name. His design incorporated several innovations that paved the way for a broad adoption of central heating in modern life.

The Franklin Stove is essentially a metal-lined fireplace. With it, Franklin moved the fireplace from a wall, where, by definition, it must be located, and transformed it into a mid-room furnace. (Franklin even called his invention the "Pennsylvania fireplace.) He knew that heat radiates in all directions and therefore much of the heat from a fireplace is wasted against the wall and up the chimney and is useless to warm the room and its occupants.

"So he built a cast-iron furnace that could be placed in the middle of a room," says the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Lemelson Foundation website dedicated to the history of invention. "The heat it generated spread out in all directions , and was also absorbed by the furnace's iron walls, so that the stove provide warmth even after the fire went out."

It seems things in Colonial Philadelphia weren't very different than today, in some respects. Comfort, fuel efficiency and cost were important then, too. The story goes that Franklin began working on the stove design because he wanted more domestic comfort than the fireplace of the day generally provided. He wanted to save money, too.

Wood was the primary fuel and it was growing ever more costly as the population of Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in North America at the time, grew and the fuel supply moved ever further away as nearby wood was consumed.

The Franklin stove succeeded in both efficiency and economy. It's said that the stove gave off twice the heat of a fireplace for just a third of the wood consumed.

The Franklin design was good, but not ideal. The stove had no chimney. It vented from the base and too much smoke still got into the room. Over the next 30 years or so others improved the design. Fellow Philadelphia David Rittenhouse, solved the venting problem when he added an L-shaped exhaust pipe that led smoke gases up and out of the house. Then, in the 1770's Franklin created a further-improved design that also could use coal as a fuel. Subhed: 'Modern' Central Heating Historians aren't at all sure just when modern central heating systems first appeared. Steam heat system only became possible after 1776, when James Watt succeeded in putting the first practical steam engine in commercial operation. At some point in the late 1700's or early 1800's, it seems reasonable that someone had harnessed Franklin's stove or one of its progeny to fire some version of a hot-air central heating system. Hot water central heating systems began to show up in the early 1800's, too.

Gradually, over the next century and well into the 20th century, central heating slowly came into more common use.

When Pennsylvania opened the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829, it was considered not only a model of progressive prison reform but a technological marvel, with flush toilets, shower baths and central heating. Even the U.S. president couldn't enjoy such luxuries.

Martin Van Buren corrected that inequality when he installed a central heating system in the White House in 1837, making it one of the earliest residences in the nation to have it. (The White House didn't have running water either, until 1833.)

In England in 1869, the first bungalows were being built, with central heating as one of their radical, new features. Described as rustic, cozy, "perfect as to sanitary qualities," and offering "real comfort," only the upper classes could afford them, completely furnished from 1,000 guineas, some $ 6,000 at the time.

When Mark Twain build his Victorian mansion in Hartford four decades later, central heating was still a luxury available only to the privileged. His home, with its central heating, hot and cold running water and gas lighting fixtures was considered a shining example of the modern home.

Taco Becomes a Force

Taco was founded in 1920, when Elwood White, grandfather of the current President John Hazen White Jr., purchased the Thermal Appliance Company in Elizabeth. N.J. Shortly after, water heater inventor Robert Lincoln Blanding joined the company and within a few years Taco developed a tankless water heater, [link to domestic hot water recirc] the tempering valve ,[link to glossary, possibly to system schematic] and a year-round boiler control. [link to glossary, possibly to system schematic]

As central heating spread, it wrought changes throughout domestic daily life. No longer did families have to gather together in a single room for warmth. Individuals were free to move throughout the house and follow their own pursuits.

Central heating changed fashions, too. Women were free to be more fashionable and they took advantage of that freedom. In 1925, the "New York Times" reported that speakers at a meeting of the American Association of Woolen and Worsted Manufacturers lamented the "radical change in women's clothing" wrought by the widespread use of central heating, and the negative impact it had on their business.

Meanwhile, throughout the 1930's Taco continued to grow and the "Taco Heater" was so well-known that it became a generic name

Yet in the middle of that Depression decade, the "L.A. Times" could still report that despite the significant improvements in central heating systems in the last ten years, many homeowners still failed to realize the value central heating would add to their properties.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, central heating became a given in the modern home. However, preferences for a particular type of central heating changed and continue to change. Hot air systems grew more quickly at first, then hydronic systems gained favor. A growing number of people were dissatisfied with hot-air heating, believing that the quality of air once heated to high temperatures by the store or furnace, became "deteriorated."

Homeowners may no longer worry about the air in their homes "deteriorating." But indoor air quality is of concern to everyone and as of today, hydronic systems continue to grow in popularity because of their comfort, versatility and economical operation.

Taco continues its tradition of quality and innovation, too. As interest in green building increases, Taco product innovation keeps pace. And as more and more homeowners look to alternate, renewable energy sources such as solar power and geothermal power for their home comfort, Taco continues to develop the products that help to harness those energy sources, make efficient use of their potential and deliver the comfort that homeowners have sought since the beginning of recorded history.