Fireplace is one of those reliable English language words that don’t leave you guessing. This abridged history begins with the traditional European fireplace of mediaeval times. The one in the image on the left, below, is from a house The Black Knight once stayed in circa 1400, hence the insignia on the mantel – or at least that’s how I remember it from World of Interiors. The house is most definitely that of a nobleman, but I like how it can be lived in with a minimum of apparatus. Rugs and tapestries soften the acoustics and lessen radiant cooling. That 17th century invention, the piano, would always have been by the window for better light but not so close for diurnal temperature variations to affect its tuning. A painting and some flowers in a vase probably always satisfied the human needs for art and nature. Internal shutters kept the wind-owt. The fireplace provided warmth.
The story-arc of the fireplace starts off promisingly with a succession of improvements for better combustion.
The first major change in heating technology came in the early 17th century when Franz Kessler had the idea of using the siphon effect to pull hot air through a ceramic baffle that warmed up and transferred heat to the room.
Over four centuries, the ceramic fireplace (a.k.a. masonry heater) with multiple baffles became the dominant continental European way to heat a room. Each country had its variants but common to all was a large mass that heated the room by radiant heat.
A Frenchman, Jean Desaguiliers, noticed that metals such as cast iron conducted heat into the room more effectively. Benjamin Franklin combined these two discoveries into the Franklin Stove he proposed in 1741.
It had the problem of only burning well and without smoke if there was a strong draft, and this was difficult if the flue was still cold. In 1780, David Rittenhouse modified Franklin’s design by adding an L-shaped flue at the top and it’s Rittenhouse improved design that today, unfortunately for Rittenhouse’s memory, is mistakenly referred to as a Franklin Stove.
A little over four years ago, in the Night Sky Radiant Cooling post, I introduced Count von Rumford [a.k.a. Benjamin Thompson] who, in 1796, suggested improvements that became known as the Rumford Fireplace. Rumford must have been sensitive to cold as he’s also credited with the invention of thermal underwear.
The Rumford fireplace created a sensation in London when [Rumford] introduced the idea of restricting the chimney opening to increase the updraught, which was a much more efficient way to heat a room than earlier fireplaces. He and his workers modified fireplaces by inserting bricks into the hearth to make the side walls angled, and added a choke to the chimney to increase the speed of air going up the flue. The effect was to produce a streamlined air flow, so all the smoke would go up into the chimney rather than lingering, entering the room, and often choking the residents. It also had the effect of increasing the efficiency of the fire, and gave extra control of the rate of combustion of the fuel, whether wood or coal. Many fashionable London houses were modified to his instructions, and became smoke-free. [W]
The pot-bellied stove of circa 1860 is one of the world’s great inventions. It could produce 50 kW or more, making them suitable for heating large spaces such as railway station waiting rooms and depots, and even the trains themselves. Warmth went public.
The story of the domestic fireplace between 1850 and 1950 is that of the shift from combusting wood, to combusting coal, and then gas. Below, the first example is a coal-burning fireplace from circa 1870 and the others are examples of the gas-fired “coal-effect” fireplaces still common in the UK today.
Ceramic “coals” glow a convincing red upon sufficient heat input.
Over the same period, the history of the fireplace split in two. One history charts improvements in the fuel being combusted and how to combust it. The other charts the change from the fireplace being (1) a functional feature structurally integrated into the building, into (2) a functional and symbolic feature integrated into the building and then into (3) a symbolic feature. This history can probably be traced through the fireplaces of Wright alone.
In the 20th century, the fireplace became an architectural feature increasingly detached from the building.
These next images, in no particular order, show the fireplace in various stages on the spectrum of architectural element to objectified object.
Whether this objectification happened because fireplaces were made functionally obsolete by air conditioning, underfloor heating and other forms of active environmental control no longer matters. It continued anyway. An architecture victim at twelve, I looked forward to dancing around the fire in my modern house of the future.
One technical fightback that occurred 1960-1980 was the “heatform” fireplace which was a metal firebox built into a full masonry chimney. They were inexpensive to install because a trained mason didn’t have to construct a firebox. Side or top vents circulated heated air back into the room. Heatform and Heatilator were popular brands.
This is Vulcan oil-fired heater of a type popular in Australia in the 1960s. There was a tank on an outside wall and when its float indicator dropped below a certain level, you’d phone someone and a guy in a boiler suit would come park an oil tanker in your driveway and fill it up again, fuelling oil dependency at the same time. Oil heaters such as these were often enclosed in a masonry–effect fireplace surrounds or inserted into feature walls of masonry effect cladding. Ceramic inserts above the burner glowed orange at full burn.
The 1970s oil crises and a growing awareness that burning oil wasn’t such a good thing led to a revival of interest in wood-burning stoves that had no need for masonry surrounds, even fake ones. Most improved little upon the Rittenhouse Stove. Rectangular shapes were admired for their modern looks rather than for having more radiant surface area than a potbelly.
Freestanding stoves were seen as more modern but placing them in a fireplace meant the masonry would continue to radiate heat for some time after heat input ceased.
Philip Starck solved that problem by placing optional boxes of modular rocks / modular boxes of optional rocks beneath the firebox. Meet Speetbox. [Is there anything that has not been reinvented by Philippe Starck?]
Speetbox app features include:
- Control of hot air distribution (on/off)
- Control of room temperature (optional)
- Setting of power/speed of combustion
- Analysis of flue temperatures (safety)
- Lighting control
- Control of electric sockets (time setting)
- Hearth software features update
Since the 1970s, the objectification of the fireplace has intensified but with less dancing. Of the feature object fireplaces, the suspended fireplace was perhaps the most perverse,
but there is also the subcategory of architectural fireplaces,
as well as the one having the fireplace as architecturalized object.
As it happened, it wasn’t the fireplace being objectified after all but fire itself. The frameless Escea DS1400 lets you focus on the flame instead of going to the trouble of making one or sustaining one by periodically adding fuel. The Escea DS1400 operates on either natural gas or propane. Its heat output of 5–5.6 kW might warm 16 sq.m on a cold day.
A downloadable user guide tells you how to connect your fireplace to the internet ffs and warns you not to lose the remote.
We haven’t quite reached the bottom. This next is a bio-ethanol fire experience that provides you with romantic fire art. At least the flames are still flames.
You know how this is going to end. Dimplex’s Opti Myst® effect uses ultrasonics to create a fine water mist that’s coaxed upwards through the ‘fuel’ to allow moving images of flames to be projected onto it and create a convincing illusion of flames and smoke. The result is an appearance so authentic it will be mistaken for true flames and smoke. To its credit, there is still the presence of a gas-like substance but any conceptual satisfaction is thwarted by their “Just add water!” approach to creating fire.
Focal Point Fires make much of their realistic fire effects. Dimplex have been at it for some time. Their Optiflame® effect was introduced in 1988.
Their Opti-V Effect is, they say, the perfect blend of magic and realism. This is disturbing. Just when I’ve finally come to accept a reality that’s insufficiently magical, I realise I’ve been neglecting to worry about magic not being realistic enough.
It uses the latest High Definition TV technology to create flames and sparks for a virtual fireplace experience like no other. The unique and patent protected design combines ultra realistic flickering flames with three dimensional LED logs that sporadically spark! With the addition of an audio element of crackling logs, the illusion of a real fire is complete. [snarky boldings mine]
There are many fireplace TV apps available that don’t treat sound as an extra. Their downside is that the only heat you’ll get will be from your flatscreen’s electronics. The fire as fire-effect virtual fireplace is so new our language hasn’t yet adapted to describe it. If left to virtually burn continuously on this 32″ SONY BRAVIA for the three months of winter, such an app would consume 35W of electricity. Most of that 35W would be converted into heat, but you might wish it was a little more especially if, like me, you are a seated adult male generating (i.e. losing) approx. 70W of metabolic heat per hour.
From such proud beginnings to such an ignominious end. I didn’t set out to write a critical para-historic fable about architecture as a projection of an image of a hollowed-out shell of something that once had a purpose, but it’s what I seem to have done.
• • •
- The Alliance for Green Heat prevides this concise history of burning wood for heat
- This handy site offers guidelines to choose the right output for your wood burning or multi-fuel stove
- c.f. Rocket Science