Friday, June 15, 2012

264. Benjamin Franklin and Chinese Heating Technology

There is a long and cold winter in the northern section of North America. During colonial times, most people warmed their homes by building a fire in a fireplace, even though it was dangerous and much wood was needed. Franklin figured that there had to be a better way. By the 1740s the growing population of the Colonies resulted in noticeable inroads on the great forests, which supplied fuel. The heating of houses was growing more expensive, while the wood used was very inefficient, much of the heat - five sixth, Franklin estimated in many cases - being lost up the chimney. In the process of working on a new and efficient heating system, Franklin studied Chinese heating technology. He examined the “ingenious” heating technology used by “the northern Chinese.”

As in other cases, Franklin did not just copy the Chinese technology. He examined it first, and then adopted the most suitable part from the technology. He noticed that the Chinese heating technology had some minor flaws. For instance, “as the underside of the floor must grow foul with soot, and a thick coat of soot prevents much of the direct application of the hot air to the tiles.” Franklin found the cause of this problem. Franklin was not satisfied with finding the problem; he continued to work to find the solution. For the purpose of making the Chinese heating system more efficient in the United States, Franklin built “the funnel close to the grate, so as to have only an iron plate between the fire and the funnel, through which plate, the air in the funnel being heated, it will be sure to draw well, and force the smoke to descend.”

On the basis of his assimilation of the Chinese heating technology, Franklin invented a fire place, which was called the Pennsylvania Fire Place. He dealt with the problem by incorporating a number of passages and vents so that the apparatus drew in cold fresh air from outside the building and, after warming the air in a passage kept hot by the escaping gases of the fire, finally discharged it into the room. The main advantage, Franklin maintained, was that “whole room is equally warmed, so that people need not crowd so close round the fire, but many sit near the window, and have the benefit of the light for reading, writing, needle-work, &c

From Benjamin Franklin and Chinese Civilization, published by Reset Dialogue of Civilization. The paper can be accessed from this link.

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