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 Philadelphian 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.

‘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 built 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.

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