History

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Along with food and shelter

warmth has been essential to man's existence in most parts of the world, and to starve from want of fire was nearly as desperate a state as to starve from want of food. The important place that fire has always held in man's esteem is shown by the fact that almost all early religions-from the very primitive to the more developed beliefs of the Greeks and Romans-incorporated a legend to account for the gift of fire to man.

In Greek and Roman mythology

fire was the celestial gift of Prometheus, who stole it from the gods and bore it to earth. In their anger, the gods doomed him to a terrible and eternal punishment. Since the origin of fire goes back to prehistory, we can only surmise how man actually discovered it. Possibly early man captured fire from a blaze started by lightning or by lava overflowing a volcano; Stone Age man might have discovered it while working flints to make weapons-a spark falling among dry grass could have been his first experience.

Whatever the source

fire was a "civilizing" influence and is credited with the development of the home. A hunter, instead of tearing apart his kill in the woods or prairie, proudly carried the meat home to be delectably cooked over the campfire in front of his own cave. Later, probably tiring of rebuilding fires after rains, he moved the fire indoors to his cave living room. Found has been the remains of many cave fires with large numbers of bones; archeologists argue about whether the bones were left from food prepared over the fire or were used as fuel.

A cave fire

sounds like a smoky sort of heat until we realize that many caves have cracks and openings in their roofs and walls that lead to the outside. Choosing a good cave may have included a knowledge of drafts as well as other factors, and some caves undoubtedly had excellent natural draft systems. In addition, the stone walls of the cave reflected and retained the heat in a way our modern frame buildings and upholstered living rooms do not. The tendency to think of primitive man as living in great discomfort may be far from the fact; in this, as in so many areas, we may be priding ourselves on nonexistent advances over the past.

 

Man-built shelters

developed with the advance of civilization, lacked many of the amenities of the cave. A castle was a very drafty, uncomfortable place with poor sanitary facilities and cold food brought at great distance from the enormous kitchens in which it was prepared. The castle was heated by huge fires, originally built in the center of the great high-ceilinged halls, which drew all the heat to the ceiling and left the stone floor untouched by warmth. Eventually the fire was moved to one wall and a simple straight chimney was added. Although this got rid of some of the smoke, it was not much help in heating, since a large fireplace-and castle fireplaces were large enough to stand in-provides heat only when a large fire burns fiercely in it. When the fire burns down, the inside corners of the fireplace become cold, and hot air is drawn out of the room allowing fresh air to rush in.

As with modern houses

castles were more often cooled than heated by their fireplaces. It took many centuries for Europeans to discover that a small fireplace with a small, steadily burning fire would provide more heat than a large one, which ate up wood while providing very little and very uneven warmth. Some of this discomfort was due to a curious historical phenomenon; knowledge is discovered, used, and lost over and over again. The Romans, who were excellent engineers-as we know from their roads and aqueducts, which still stand today-developed heating systems under their tiled floors that were very modern both in concept and in execution. With the fall of Rome, this simple invention, which contributed so much to comfortable living, was lost and was not discovered again until scholars excavated Roman sites.

By colonial times

heating had once again become sophisticated; the Dutch, German, Scandinavian, and French heating units were impressively efficient and satisfactory. The English, especially in the new Americas, stubbornly stuck to the open fireplace of which they were so fond, and froze in their frame houses from Vermont to Virginia. 

Eventually

thanks to Ben Franklin and Count Rumford, fireplaces became smaller-and developed smoke shelves, dampers, and other useful devices. The exception was the kitchen fireplace, which remained large because of its function; cooking was done over the open fire, to one side of the fire on coals raked from the fire proper, and in ovens set within and without the fireplace as well as in front of it. Many kitchen fireplaces contained cosy corners in which one could sit and warm himself, and herbs and vegetables were hung to dry on the wall above the lintel.