Last night, as temperatures dipped with the first breezes of a newly arrived fall, our vintage hot-water heating system surprised us by coming to life for the first time this season. Though the warmth from 1910 radiators was welcome, it was also a subtle reminder that there was likely a time when heating a Victorian house wasn’t so simple.
After devising various “gravity” hot air furnaces in the mid 19th century, engineers began trying to heat buildings with steam boilers – already widely at work powering stationary engines, watercraft, and locomotives. The first successful system, devised in 1854 by New Englander Stephen Gold, used a small, low-pressure, wrought-iron boiler equipped with novel safety devices that dramatically reduced the potential for explosions, a common problem in the era. However, what really made the system practical was Gold’s patented invention: a pair of iron plates hung on a wall known as a ‘mattress’ radiator. Steam had its advantages for heating large buildings or in cities (where an offsite source could supply district steam) but, in the early days it was difficult to manage and always potentially dangerous, due to the need for pressure. Sometime between 1875 and 1885, an alternative system began taking hold in the form of gravity hot-water heating. Though tricky to install because they needed a closed loop of large-diameter piping between boiler and radiators, gravity hot-water heating systems ran at only 180 degrees and atmosphere pressure, making them easier and safer to maintain than steam and, by the late 1890s, the system of choice for heating large houses.
Along with forced-air heating (the blower-driven descendant of gravity warm air), steam- and hot-water heating systems (collectively called hydronic systems) have become integral parts of the houses they serve, and continue to provide comfort for today’s households in their original as well as modern forms. What’s more, as these systems evolved they’ve had a subtle but dramatic influence not only on homeowner lifestyles but also on the design of houses themselves. Central heating – especially with radiators that distributed heat more evenly through the house than gravity air – reduced the need to treat rooms as cells linked by a central hall that had to be closed off with doors to conserve heat from individual fireplaces or stoves. By the 1880s this new freedom from fireplaces allowed the flow between interior spaces to open up into what we now call the open floor plan.