The earliest method of providing interior heating was an open fire. Such a source, along with related methods such as fireplaces, cast-iron stoves, and modern space heaters fueled by gas or electricity, is known as direct heating because the conversion of energy into heat takes place at the site to be heated. A more common form of heating in modern times is known as central, or indirect, heating. It consists of the conversion of energy to heat at a source outside of, apart from, or located within the site or sites to be heated; the resulting heat is conveyed to the site through a fluid medium such as air, water, or steam.

Except for the ancient Greeks and Romans, most cultures relied upon direct-heating methods. Wood was the earliest fuel used, though in places where only moderate warmth was needed, such as China, Japan, and the Mediterranean, charcoal (made from wood) was used because it produced much less smoke. The flue, or chimney, which was first a simple aperture in the centre of the roof and later rose directly from the fireplace, had appeared in Europe by the 13th century and effectively eliminated the fire’s smoke and fumes from the living space. Enclosed stoves appear to have been used first by the Chinese about 600 BC and eventually spread through Russia into northern Europe and from there to the Americas, where Benjamin Franklin in 1744 invented an improved design known as the Franklin stove. Stoves are far less wasteful of heat than fireplaces because the heat of the fire is absorbed by the stove walls, which heat the air in the room, rather than passing up the chimney in the form of hot combustion gases.

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