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HVACR Heritage Centre Canada's work

1. Image of a man sitting in a tin tub

1. After a hard day's work it's nice to squeeze
in a bath. Click the image for more information.

There can be no more fundamental Canadian story than the one that tells how Canadians, living in one of the coldest jurisdictions on the face of the globe, learned to keep warm, providing the foundation stones for comfort, public health, and well being. It’s a story of immense creativity and inventiveness, one that must emerge as an integral part of our Canadian cultural identity, deeply ingrained in the Canadian psyche, as an essential condition for human existence.

The HVACR Heritage Centre Canada’s (HHCC’s) documentary, this website, “Warming Up: A Canadian History of Automated Heating and Social Change” begins to tell this fundamental story of how Canada was invented. It tells much about how Canadians survive, thrive, and sustain themselves for six months and more out of the calendar year, while they anticipate and plan for the next winter — just six months away.

The Centre has, by reason of its charter, a strong public education and research mandate, disseminating information and promoting knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the history of Canadian technology. HHCC’s primary focus is the rich heritage of HVACR technology, telling the many stories of its contributions and consequences to the Canadian way of life.

Rueben Nelson, Canadian social scientist, has pointed out that all peoples have their fundamental stories within which they live, thrive, and sustain themselves. They provide powerful, integrating, suggestive story lines that enable a people to make sense out of their times, and to anticipate and plan productively for their future. Canadian story teller Roy Mayer, in “Inventing Canada,” tells of the creative challenges of inventing something useful that didn’t exist before, a journey often fraught with risks of entrepreneurialism for those that attempt it. These are the stories “Warming Up” endeavours to share.

Factually Speaking

The HVACR Heritage Centre Canada began as a private initiative by a group of enthusiastic volunteers.

About the documentary

2. Images of a man wearing a gas mask, refrigerant molecules and a tank of R134

2. In the “Chilling Out” exhibit you'll find out
that technicians often wore gas masks in the
early days of refrigeration. Click the image for
more information.

The documentary is “collections-based,” drawing on the archival holdings and extensive collections of historic artefacts held by the Centre. The artefacts, which history leaves behind, constitute the living material culture of a people. They are said to be the new “hieroglyphics” of our times, the images, symbols, and cultural icons by means of which a people come to know and understand themselves.

“Warming-Up” follows a similar documentary “Chilling Out, The Origins of Home Refrigeration,” also sponsored by the Centre and Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC), and available on the Web. Both documentaries are part of the HHCC’s commitment to public programming, raising awareness and understanding of the technologies developed by the industry, and their consequences for changing Canadian lives, society, and culture.

Factually Speaking

The Centre was incorporated as a Canadian not-for-profit in 2002 and was granted charitable status in 2003.

What you will see and learn

3. Photo of a roughly hewn ash sifter from the late 19th century

3. HHCC's oldest heating artefact is this hand-
made ash sifter. Click the image for more

Coming to understand the power of the mundane, the ordinary, and the commonplace can be one of life’s important learning experiences. So it is with the myriad enabling devices found in Canadian households. By the 21st century technological contrivances are powerfully influencing the lives of Canadians. Included, in addition to the devices on which automatic, central home heating is premised, are a host of household labour-saving appliances, the electronic communication and information gadgetry that now crowd our lives, as well as the vehicles that crowd and re-invent our public thoroughfares.

Yet notwithstanding their profound impact, they are, paradoxically, often little understood in their human consequences. For the most part they become so commonplace in private and public life that they become quickly taken for granted, as entitlements, and as rights of passage, much less as privileges. Technology, once it becomes part of public life, takes on a life of its own, constantly setting what are often unsustainably, higher and higher expectations for the future.

Yet many of life’s technologies of convenience, comfort and pleasure are in the form of relatively obscure, unobtrusive devices making them even more difficult to comprehend. This is nowhere more true than in automated central home heating, typically tucked away out of sight, known only by a thermostat on the living room wall and the comforting feeling of being surrounded by a blanket of warm air in a cold Canadian winter.

When Canadians depended on the kitchen range and the parlour stove for warmth, their presence was evident to all. It was clear, also, that only stoking and constant care ensured that the basic conditions of health and safety were met. But, by the 20th century, that was about to change. It was then that warm air furnaces and hot water, space heating boilers began to turn up in the basements and obscure corners of the home. Soon to be automated, to perform without the touch of human hand, they replaced the kitchen range and parlour stove as principal means of space heating.

The power of automated central heating depends on knowledge of fundamental ways and means, of life-giving properties, trends, ideas, concepts, and principles on which they were based. This documentary introduces the viewer, possibly for the first time, to a potpourri of such ways and means by which heating is based:

  • The perennial human drive for warmth and comfort, health, and convenience;
  • The conditions that existed early in the 20th century that favoured social change, as a response to the hardships of rural and urban settlement life, and to a great weariness, the aftermath of two world wars and economic depression;
  • The new expectations which triggered the marketplace for central automated home heating in the 1920s;
  • The contributions of scientific discovery and enabling technologies, including new materials, and manufacturing processes, newly available fuels and energy sources, and ingenious automated devices, as well as;
  • The human creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurialism that put it all together and made it all happen.

Article Sources


  • Jonathan F. Vance, A History of Canadian Culture (Don Mills, Ont.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • Ralph Nader, Canadian Firsts, A Salute to Canada and Canadian Achievements (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992).
  • “The Creative Class”,, (accessed January 5, 2011).
  • D. Paul Schafer, “Creativity - Canada’s Greatest Asset,” manuscript, 2009, publication forthcoming.
  • Warren Susman, Culture as History, The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).
  • Geoffrey J Matthews, Historical atlas of Canada : Volume II : the land transformed 1800-1891 (Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1993).
  • Donald P Kerr and Geoffrey J Matthews, Historical atlas of Canada, vol.. 3, Addressing the twentieth century, 1891-1961 (Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1990).
  • Roy Mayer, Inventing Canada, One Hundred Years of Innovation (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 1997).
  • Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002).

Image Credits

HVACR Heritage Centre Canada's work

  • R. Frings (Beeld en Geluidwiki - Stiefbeen en zoon) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-nl (], via Wikimedia Commons [detail].

About the documentary

  • HHCC Collection.

What you will see and learn

  • HHCC Historical artefact (Accession No. 2006-155), photographed by Mark Dorlandt Photography, HD1006A-4-29.