Half a million years ago, our hairy ancestors squatted in their mud huts, smothered in smoke from indoor cooking fires, unaware that such a thing as a chimney could save them from scorched lungs and burning eyes.
That is because the chimney had yet to be invented. In fact, the average Homo erectus would not have known a chimney from a ham sandwich. As a result, early man, woman and child were doomed to choke on their smoky environment for thousands of years.
The Romans (circa 100 BC) are often mistakenly credited with developing the first true chimneys for use with their ingenious hot-air heating systems. Although ancient technical innovators, they were not quite ancient enough to claim first place in the race to clear the indoor air.
That distinction probably goes to another ancient people, the Mesopotamians, who were enthusiastically sticking chimneys on their palaces by the upper Euphrates 2,000 years earlier.
It is thought that the chimney first showed up in Europe about the time of Charlemagne, or about 1,200 years ago. Granted, they were not always devices of great beauty or sophistication. One bargain approach to chimney construction consisted of sticking a barrel with the ends removed through a hole in the roof--hardly an aesthetic equal to the splendor of the masonry chimney as it later developed during the Renaissance, when a sort of chimney mania swept the continent.
As the chimney moved into Europe's upscale neighborhoods, it served not only as a pollution control device but also as a symbol of power, prestige and, in some instances, unabashed excess.
A chateau in France, begun by Francis I in 1519, was forested with what could be called an entire calendar of chimneys--365 stacks in all, each an individual work of art topped by stone-hewn animals, nymphs, shields and columns.
The ornate exterior of the well-bred chimney, however, actually concealed a surprisingly simple--and inefficient--inner design. Even elaborate chimneys were little more than straight, hollow shafts through which smoke could rise up and out of the house. Unfortunately, so did most of the heat. Such construction also let in drafts and rainwater.
It was not until the late 18th Century that a physicist named Benjamin Thompson--also known as Count von Rumford--established the modern anatomical form of the chimney. Among other improvements, the count provided for a combustion chamber with a slanted back to reflect heat, a damper to regulate draft and a "smoke shelf" just below the flue to catch rainwater and block errant downdrafts from blowing smoke into the room.
With some modifications, the count's refinements have held now for 200 years. But the sense of outward style that was popular during the 1700s--the so-called golden age of chimneys--has largely given way to suburban monotony.
The average tract home's chimney is an unadorned stack of brick and mortar. Even more horrible for design purists is the arrival of prefabricated chimneys with zero-clearance flues. These heat-shielding flues make it possible to do away with masonry shells altogether.
Wood is most often substituted for brick, a practical and less expensive approach to chimney building, but hardly the stuff from which monumental architecture is wrought.
Still, as is so often the case in life, it is infinitely better to have than to have not. For most homeowners, even a plain chimney is preferable to no chimney. There are few more powerful symbols of warmth, home or family. As a result, chimney and fireplace have flourished in the age of central heating.
Besides, it's not much fun hanging your Christmas stockings on a thermostat.