A Brief History of the Domestic Boiler

Quietly ticking away in an airing cupboard or up in your loft, your boiler is the beating heart of your home. Pumping heat throughout the complex system and pipes within your walls, without your central heating system, those warm showers wouldn’t be so relaxing and cosy nights in would likely take a much chillier turn. However, while it may seem unthinkable for homes to not have some form of heating system in place, the widespread use of the domestic boiler is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Before the industrial era, people had to rely on other, more primitive methods for heating their homes and, even with the age of steam revolutionising heating, it would take centuries for the average British homeowner to have some form of boiler-based central heating system.

It’s taken us a long time to get to the highly efficient, compact boiler units we have today and, as central heating experts, we have a keen interest in how the boilers of yesteryear shaped the units that we install and repair today. With this in mind, we decided to take a closer look at how the boiler system came into being.

Heating through time

Although it wouldn’t be until a few hundred years ago that the boiler was invested, humanity felt the cold just as much as we do now, meaning that people had to find some way to keep themselves warm on those especially cold nights.

The beginning of our story can actually be traced all the way back to 1.5 million years ago, deep into the era of prehistory to a time when we weren’t the only species of human wandering the globe. Historians have discovered microscopic evidence of deliberate creation of fire, supposedly created by one of our ancestors, Homo erectus. This discovery is arguably the earliest piece of evidence of human control over fire and coincides with the creation of primitive tools made from flint.

Open fires became the primary source of heat and comfort for human beings for hundreds of thousands of years, with minor innovations coming few and far between. However, by the time of Antiquity, classical civilisations such as Greece and Rome began to find new ways to heat their homes and buildings. It was here that the first ‘central heating system’ was created, using large fires connected to pipes. These pipes would then pump hot air into hollow spaces around the building, usually a temple or palace, heating the floors and walls.

Sadly, after the fall of the Roman Empire, many of their greatest innovations, including central heating, would be lost to time for thousands of years, with many people reverting back to simple hearths and fireplaces. However, the knowledge was never quite completely lost and, over time, things would begin to change.

The rise of steam

While the boilers of today offer homeowners benefits and insights that would be unthinkable to someone living 800 years ago, inventors were beginning to piece together the puzzle that would eventually lead to the modern boiler system.

Steam was one of the first steps towards the types of boilers we have today and, although steam-powered machinery was toyed with by the Greeks, it wouldn’t really become a viable option until the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the first steps was posited by the English writer Hugh Plat who, in 1594, proposed the idea of a steam-based central heating system for a greenhouse. Sadly, this idea didn’t really take off and it would take another 100 years for steam power to be tested again.

French physicist Denis Papin continued testing on steam and found that, by heating water, the corresponding steam had the ability to forcibly push a piston, creating the beginnings of the steam engine. The first practical use of this idea, however, was carried out by British military engineer Thomas Savery who utilised Papin’s idea to create a rudimentary steam engine to help him draw water from coal mines.

It would be these innovations that would soon help to kickstart the widespread use of the atmospheric steam engine and begin the industrial revolution. As time went on, new ideas regarding home heating and boiler technology continued to prop up. By 1745, William Cook would create the first illustrated idea for a steam-powered central heating system and other inventors would begin to look for new ways to innovate steam-powered systems.

James Watt, the famed British inventor and chemist was especially prolific during this time, working on the already in use Newcomen steam engine and improving it drastically by doubling its fuel efficiency. His new steam engine was one of the key discoveries in kick starting the British industrial revolution.

The industrial revolution and the boiler

With the industrial revolution in full swing, the first crude heating systems were already in use, known as kettle boilers. Being around since the late 1700s these were simply used to convert water into steam which then be released into spaces in order to heat them up. While useful at staving off the worst of the freezing Victorian weather, they were not particularly powerful and would contribute to damp issues.

However, by 1867, this problem would finally be put to bed. While many speculate as to when the first true boiler system was created, many historians agree that the founding fathers of efficient steam-generation boilers, George Babcock and Steven Wilcox, were the first to patent and manufacture their design of a brick-made structure that could create high-pressure steam.

This led the two men to form the Babcock & Wilcox Company in 1891, creating small boiler systems that were powered by coal and had the ability to create large amounts of force, making them essential for industrial application.

Around the same time, the British painter Benjamin Waddy Maughan created the first water heater for domestic use known as the Geyser. These two inventions were both extremely important in the journey toward modern boilers.

The residential boiler

While boilers were finding their uses in commercial and industrial sectors, homeowners were not feeling the same benefits. This was primarily due to the fact that industrial boilers were working at much higher pressure levels than would be required for home use, making them dangerous for such applications.

This led to an influx of smaller cast iron boiler units during the 20th century that were specifically designed for low-pressure usage. These models would be shipped into apartment blocks and assembled on-site. This would be the standard for much of the first half of the 20th century, however, after the second world war, a huge increase in demand for boiler units led to a simpler more efficient rectangular design that could be easily installed into homes.

Make sure your boiler stands the test of time with West London Gas

These days, homeowners have an array of choices when it comes to their domestic boilers and with condensing models being the industry standard, heating your home has never been easier. However, whether you’re looking for a compact combi boiler or a conventional unit for your attic, it’s important to enlist the help of an industry professional.

Here at West London Gas, we have helped countless customers throughout the capital with their heating needs. Offering a wide variety of heating solutions, including boiler repair and installation, we can ensure that your home is fully equipped.

If you would like to learn more about how West London Gas can help with your heating issues, give us a call on 02084 343 644 or visit our website.

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