The History Of Boilers

Here’s a fun trivia fact you can break out for your friends: The first known use of a boiler was in a toy. 


Hero of Alexandria was a mathematician and engineer who lived in Greece in the first century A.D. He was a prolific inventor, having created the first known vending machine and was one of the first innovators of thermometers. 


Most importantly, for our purposes, he invented a steam-powered toy known as the aeolipile. This simple device is a metal ball filled with water, featuring two bent nozzles suspended above a heat source. The ball is heated from below, causing the water to evaporate – the resulting steam then escapes from the nozzles, spinning the ball.


This was not only the first boiler – it was the first known rotary steam engine. At the time, however, it was a toy – nothing more than a curiosity to amuse partygoers.


From such humble origins did modern boilers emerge. Today, we’re going to learn about the storied history of boilers:

The 17th Century

As far as we know, the aeolipile was the last time anyone thought to use a boiler for practical application for a millennium and a half – which is astounding, considering that boilers are ubiquitous today. 


In the 17th century, however, that changed. Inventors started to think of the uses of steam power for all kinds of practical work. The main problem with early iterations was simple: Steam would build up, and the pressure would damage the machines and create a serious hazard for users. In the late 17th century (1679, to be exact), Denis Papin, a French inventor and mathematician, created the steam digester, a type of pressure cooker with a safety valve.


This invention ushered in the use of safety valves in boilers. Denis Papin also invented a piston steam engine. These inventions are considered to be the precursors of modern boilers and steam engines – making Denis Papin one of the most important figures in what would eventually develop into the Industrial Revolution.

The 18th Century

Using hot water and steam to heat buildings had been theorized about for centuries. Ancient Romans heated water for hot baths in Thermae, while writer Hugh Plat had theorized about methods of heating greenhouses using steam as early as the 16th century. True innovations in using boilers for heating buildings, however, only came about in the 18th century.


James Watt was a prolific Scottish inventor and engineer. You’ve almost certainly heard of watts, the unit of power – this term was named after James Watt. To overstate his impact on physics, engineering, and industry would be almost impossible. He created the Watt steam engine – but more importantly to the history of the boiler, he created the first known working boiler heating system in his own home. 


Indeed, the 18th century was full of innovations in the world of steam and water-based central heating, perhaps owing to the developments of Denis Papin. Engineers in Russia developed hot water heating systems for Peter the Great’s Summer Palace, and Swedish engineer Mårten Triewald used a hot water heating system for a greenhouse in Newcastle upon Tyne.


Meanwhile, numerous improvements to Watt’s steam engine were being developed – many of them by Watt himself. Eventually, these innovations in central heating and steam engine technology will culminate into modern boiler systems. 

The 19th Century

The 19th century is when boilers started to really take off. In 1812, Richard Trevithick, a British inventor, created the Cornish boiler. This boiler heated water contained in a cylinder with a “fire tube” in the middle, through which flue gases passed and heated the water contained within. This boiler was used as a steam engine.


Iterations on boiler design flourished during this period. Soon enough, water-tube boilers became available. While the first water-tube boilers had been patented in the late 18th century, they only came to prominence in the 19th century. This was due in part to innovations by American inventors George Herman Babcock and Stephen Wilcox, who created a safer water-tube boiler in 1867, and created the Babcock & Wilcox Company.


Around the same time Babcock & Wilcox created their boiler, radiators were being invented.  Franz San Galli, a Russian businessman and inventor, was said to have created the first modern radiator in 1855, though some will argue that Joseph Nason created the first modern radiator in 1841. 

The 20th Century 

By the 20th century, most of the pieces were in place for modern boilers. We had radiators, and we had developed extensive knowledge of moving steam through pipes under high pressure. There was still a piece of the puzzle missing, however.


Little is known about Alice H. Parker. We know she graduated from Howard University. We know that she died at the young age of 35, perhaps from fire, perhaps from heatstroke. We know that she lived in a time where African American women like her could face a great many challenges. And we know that she invented the first known natural gas furnace, pioneering natural gas central heating systems. She obtained the patent for this system just one year before she died, in 1919. 


Natural gas was revolutionary for boiler-based heating systems, and gas boilers are now some of the most commonly used boilers in the world. In the 20th century, boilers became more and more efficient and safer, especially with the advent of computer technology. Innovations included the Hartford Loop and the first plate heat exchanger. 


Boilers are more efficient than they’ve ever been. They’re safer than they’ve ever been, too. Combi-boilers and condensing boilers are becoming more common – these types of boilers save an incredible amount of energy. Smart thermostats allow for careful control over how much heat boilers produce.

It’s incredible how far we’ve come over the last century. At Howell Mechanical, we offer boiler replacement in Winnipeg. Now that you know the history, you’ll be able to fully appreciate the futuristic boilers we have today.