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Man’s Own Breath

· wellness,mental health,health,covid19,architecture

Originally published on 

The coronavirus pandemic has revived interest in the role design has played fighting infectious diseases. Most famously, the trailblazing modern architecture of the early 20th century — open to nature and filled with light and air. These are all ideas centered about health and wellness, especially in combating the scourge of tuberculosis (which also influenced bathroom design). The modern radiator was invented to fight epidemics like 1918′s Spanish Influenza, heating housing without sharing airflow.

 The radiator is one of the greatest inventions of modern times. Can you imagine how miserable and cold life would be without central heating? Not to mention the smog we’d be coughing in caused by the increasing population burning more and more coal and wood on their fire. It turns out that the prodigious output of steam-heated buildings is the direct result of theories of infection control that were enlisted in the battle against the great global pandemic of 1918 and 1919.

 So with the bitter cold giving him a wonderful incentive to warm up his cold bones the Polish-born Russian, businessman, Franz San Galli invented the heating radiator in St Petersburg between 1855–1857. That’s two years of cold fingers fiddling with bits of cold metal before he could take his hat off and thaw out his Vodka using his new Radiator. In the late 1800s, companies, such as the American Radiator Company, promoted cast iron radiators over previous fabricated steel designs in order to lower costs and expand the market.

 His invention was taken up by the wealthy Victorians as the ‘must have’ of the day, although the Radiator sensation in Great Britain really took off during the early 20th century. All the radiators of the day were run by steam, rather than hot water today. Steam works at great pressures hence all early radiators were fitted with steam valves which might suddenly release their steam should the pressure rise too much.

 Steam heating and radiators were designed to heat buildings on the coldest day of the year with all the windows open. Anybody who’s thrown their windows open in January, when their apartment is stifling, is, in an odd way, replicating what engineers hoped would happen a century ago. Engineering books from the 1920s often mentioned this need to design heating systems, notably the boilers and radiators, to operate with all windows open, a requirement of the “fresh air movement.”

 Man’s own breath seemed to be her or his greatest enemy. Sound familiar? By the time the Spanish Flu hit, the maxims of the fresh air movement had become popular enough to impact building designs. The toll of the pandemic solidified this thinking. Having robust steam boilers that could keep apartments and dwellings comfortable with open windows became standard in New York City; as well as other populated cities in the States.

 As a Covid-haunted winter looms, residents of steam-heated buildings may get another opportunity to crank their radiators up and put them to their intended use. As we’ve been experiencing, ventilation is being promoted as a key strategy to cut infection.