Ancient to modern air movement

Air movement has been manipulated for centuries. What’s the history?

By Randy Schrecengost April 19, 2022
Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

Ancient man unknowingly began the efforts in the movement of air when they moved fires inside caves, tents or huts. According to numerous historical references, many of the original arrangements had central fire pits with an opening located at a higher elevation or in the roof for smoke to escape. This created a draft of air though not always efficient or effective — through any number of lower openings to enter the structure in which the fire was held.

The history of heating for comfort has been examined by reviewing central heating examples of hearths, fireplaces, stoves and even underfloor systems excavated in Greece as far back as 2500 B.C.

Air movement using underfloor heating systems may have first appeared in the Middle East when King Arzawa installed a system in his palace at Beycesutan, Turkey, about 1300 B.C. The Romans enhanced the technology about 80 B.C. with systems credited to the ancient Roman Sergius Orata. They not only heated the floor, with some systems introducing heated air through floor openings, but heated building walls as well.

Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria (10 to 70 A.D.) was a mathematician (geometer) and engineer in his native city of Alexandria, Roman Egypt. He’s credited with a wind-wheel operating an organ in about 60 A.D., marking the first instance in history of wind powering a machine. He also devised other simple systems with one engine that used air from a closed chamber heated by an altar fire to displace water from a sealed vessel. The water was collected and its weight, pulling on a rope, opened temple doors.

Air movement was expanded as stone and clay brick fireplaces and stoves were installed as early as the 800s A.D. in early castles. These devices became common throughout Europe by the 1500s as well as in the United States. However, until about 1890, this science of heating and ventilation was still not well understood. Most of the work was done by contractors and very few of them were educated or had any formal training in engineering. Installations of systems for handling heated air, were based upon rules of thumb and relied heavily on calculations related to data in fan manufacturers’ catalogues.

Ultimately, more scientific consideration in both the manufacture of and the application of these air moving systems occurred. The Master Steam and Hot Water Fitters Association was formed in 1889 and in August 1894, a society of heating and ventilating engineers was formed and called themselves “The American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers.” This was the precursor to today’s ASHRAE.



Author Bio: Randy Schrecengost is a senior project manager and principal mechanical engineer with Stanley Consultants. He has extensive experience in design and in project and program management at all levels of engineering, energy consulting, facilities engineering and commissioning. He is currently ASHRAE Director Regional Chair for Region VIII and is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.