Have you ever thought about chimneys? Well, let's
do that today. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Wenceslas was a real King of Bohemia. He
got into political trouble in 1400 and went downhill
from then on. He ended as an alcoholic. As for his
mythical trip into the cold, that was on December
26th -- the feast of Saint Stephen. It's a poor night
to be out in Bohemia. And medieval records show that
winters were far worse then than they are now. The
medieval poet François Villon shivered and
called that time of year,
Good King Wenceslas
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even.
By 1400 the indoors had become bearable
in winter. Six hundred years before, in Charlemagne's
time, even the indoors was quite ghastly in winter.
We needed far better tools of survival before we'd
ever build civilization in Northern Europe.
... the dead season when wolves live off the
wind, and people stay home near the fire
The technologies that brought us out of the forests
began appearing just after Charlemagne -- after AD
800. We learned to harness the horse and
waterpower. No less important, we learned to keep
the chill of winter out of our bones.
The chimney was the key. Before its invention,
whole families crammed into one large room with an
indoor fire. They were utterly without privacy.
They vented the smoke, but the arrangement was less
efficient than a fire in an Indian wigwam.
Chimneys and fireplaces changed all that. Hot smoke
in a chimney buoys up and draws fresh air into a
small fire. Now we could divide buildings into
rooms and equip each one with a fireplace and
The first stage of that arrangement turned up in a
Swiss monastery in AD 820. A system of flue pipes
took smoke from several fires. They fed it into
three smokestacks. Individual chimneys and
fireplaces followed, but we're not sure just when.
Evidence is very skimpy before AD 1100.
That's because only the clergy and the clerks of
kings wrote in the Middle Ages. They told about
politics and wars. They hardly mentioned the real
agents of social change. The craftsmen who really
shaped the world stayed anonymous and invisible.
Kenneth Clark's great television series
Civilisation described the world just
after the chimney was invented. He didn't talk
about chimneys, either. But his title was The
Great Thaw. That was imagery for the
11th-century artistic and technological revolution.
The first step on the road to building that
civilization was easing human misery -- driving
back cold and hunger. We couldn't build cathedrals,
or lunar landers, until we'd first learned the
technologies of our own survival.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dresbeck, L.R. Winter Climate and Society in the
Northern Middle Ages: The Technological Impact.
Humana Civilitas: Sources and Studies Relating
to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Vol.
I. On Pre-Modern Technology and Science
(B.S. Hall, D.C. West, eds.) Malibu: Undena
I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special
Collections, UH Library, for drawing my attention
to this source and making her uncatalogued copy
available to me.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.