History of Fireplaces

Fireplaces have always been used by humans and cultures as far back as records are kept. Traditionaly, they have had many important uses. They serve as a place to cook food. They are used to stay warm and provide heat on a cold day or night. Fireplaces also serve as a gathering place or a location where people meet together in a place of warmth. This article is designed to provide an overview of the history of fireplaces.

Fireplaces of Antiquity

Ancient fire pits were positioned in the middle of the room. A central fireplace can allow the maximum number of people to warm up around it and radiate heat into the maximum useable area. A hole in the ceiling would provide a draft through which the smoke could escape.

This design lasted for thousands of years. It wasn't until two-story buildings became common that the next design innovation took place. The fireplace was moved to the outside wall. People didn't want to build a fire in the middle of a wood floor on the second story. So it was easier to set the fireplace and chimney structure off to the side.

These early designs vented horizontally. Since smoke naturally rises, it had no more propensity to walk out the back than to stride in the front. Smoke would often get blown into the room.

That's when the chimney was discovered. By venting the fireplace up through the roof, a draft was created, drawing the smoke up, up, and away. The chimney is probably the most important and enduring innovation in fireplace technology. By the end of the 17th century, a few more innovations were on the horizon.

Fireplaces of the 1600's and 1700's

1678 - Prince Rupert designs a new and improved grate for the firewood to rest on. The grate raised the firewood up so that air could get in from underneath and fuel it. The design also featured a switchable baffle that allowed the air to flow directly up during lighting and then down, then up when the blaze was going. This helped reduce the chance of smoke.

1700s - Benjamin Franklin invented the Franklin stove. He moved the stove back to the center of the room to produce more heat. And he made the stove of cast iron which continued to radiate heat after the fire was out. He also lengthened the path the gas had to travel, even more than Rupert's baffle. This also improved heating efficiency.

However, even in the 1700s, chimneys were prone to catching fire and were often designed so they could be kicked away from the house if this happened.

1796 - Count Rumsford published the his first of two papers describing his new fireplace design. The tall, shallow fireboxes reflected heat more efficiently, and the streamlined throats proved excellent at drawing the smoke up and out. This combination-less depth and a decreased risk of chimney fire-allowed the chimney to be incorporated into the wall of the home rather than attached to the outside. This design lasted with adaptations through the 19th century.

Modern Fireplaces

1950s - "Ranch houses" and central heating made the fireplace a decoration rather than a heating and cooking device.

1970s - Cost averse homeowners started purchasing cheaper, prefabricated fireplaces.

1980s and on - Environmentally conscious and cost averse homeowners began seeking wood burning stoves, pellet appliances, and other ways to get the most heat for the least money with the least pollution.