Orata’s hypocaust warms our modern buns

Man, as winter nips us all in the butt as we all try to sneak out into spring, I’m reminded of why I love Sergius Orata and his hypocaust.

Orata’s the guy who originally conceived of and invented central heating.

Being that the hypocaust was constructed of stone pillars that held up a massive stone platform, though, not too many folks had one in their homes back around 95 BC.

In fact, Orata’s invention was really only used to stew folks at public baths throughout the Roman Empire.

However, Orata’s basic permise, that heat could be generated from one location in a building and distributed to others, is the foundation concept for what still keeps us warm all winter long.

A couple of centuries after Orata kicked it, some homes in the northern parts of the Roman Empire were constructed with central heating.

Basically, a big wood-fuelled oven was built in the basement.

Pipes set into walls distributed heat and ventilated fumes. Slaves made a ready thermostat system, of course.

Central heating fell out of fashion for about a millennium. Then around 1202, a settlement of Spanish Cistercian monks revived the idea and added a twist of their own: hydrology.

They diverted water from the Ebro River and used wood-fired furnaces to heat it. The warm water was then piped through crude radiators in their monastery, the “Real Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de Rueda,” which was recently converted into a luxury hotel and conference centre.

Peter the Great’s Summer Palace in Saint Petersburgh demonstrated some Russian refinement to the concept of water-based central heating. Built in 1710, this palace’s ductwork was made of elaborately painted porcelain.

Of course, where there’s heat energy, there’s waste.

Steam-driven central heating came to England in the 1830s. One of the first homes in England to have such a system was John Horley Palmer’s. The Governor of the Bank of England, Palmer had the system installed so that he could grow grapes in the cold northern climate.

These days gas- or oil-fired furnaces in basements are the norm across suburbia.

They are the engineering equivalent of architectural flatulence: cook the air to the point of indigestion and then expel it throughout the abode with the assistance of fans.

Then that pungent forced-air aroma suggests a unique airborne blend of decomposed toenails clippings, boogers, and dandruff from the days of yore.

My own digs date back to the pre-hippie era. When the gas-guzzling monster in the basement fires up I sometimes mistake if for a low-flying jet, or wonder if I might not wake up on the moon one morning.

I was recently exposed to an HVAC system in a new building.

HVAC stands for “heating, ventilating, and air-conditiong,” and, as the term suggests, this system is about the quality of air in and environment as well as its temperature.

There’s a focus on total environmental conditions, that includes the quality of air in a space.

The particular system I saw used gorgeously silent radiant heaters mounted near the ceiling.

A relatively confusing array of panels on the wall controls all aspects of its operation including humidity, air flow, and temperature.

Remarakably, the only maintenance the system needs is an annual rinse of a filter.

It’s said that Rome failed to realize the potential of machinery because they had such a vast supply of human slaves who served the purpose.

So it’s unlikely that Sergius Orata would have been able to comprehend the mechanized marvel that the HVAC system is.

Yet, Orata’s contribution to the spa culture of ancient Rome is wonderfully realized in these systems that permit humans to thrive in some of the harshest climates on the earth.

What’s better, no slaves are required.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 11, 2008.