The surprising history of radiators

Electrical appliances were tentatively introduced into the home from the late 19th century. The increase in electricity generation and the spread of electrification across the country facilitated their development. Electric radiators started to appear in homes even before the development of central heating. They brought with them a comfort that has become an essential part of our lives today.

Radiateur domestique rayonnant PyraElectropolis Museum

Rare and expensive items

Not very efficient, the first radiators were practically mere ceremonial objects. They are, as Marcel Proust says of electricity, "a charming luxury." But even he still had to have electricity in his home!

Radiateur domestique rayonnant à lampes, From the collection of: Electropolis Museum
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The first electric radiators appeared thanks to the development of incandescent lamps around 1880.

Intérieur de la maison moderne à l'Exposition internationale d'électricité de MarseilleElectropolis Museum

The public discovered them during the many world exhibitions and international electricity exhibitions that took place between 1880 and 1900.

Radiateur à lampes Paz et SilvaElectropolis Museum

Benefiting from the heat of incandescent lamps remained an expensive luxury, and an inefficient technique! This radiator comes from the Grand Hotel in Paris.

Radiateur domestique rayonnant ApolloElectropolis Museum

At that time and until after the Second World War, electric heaters remained a supplementary heat source. The presence of handles attests to this. What's more, they were rarely produced in France given the weakness of the market. They were therefore imported from the United States.

L'électricité transformée en chaleur, Richard Heller (vers 1910)Electropolis Museum

Some French companies manufactured, imported, and sold electrical heating appliances, such as Richard Heller, one of the oldest companies in the market.

Radiateur domestique rayonnant ToilectroElectropolis Museum

Technology was evolving. The lamps were replaced by panel of metal that produced heat, but the design remained close to the old coal stoves.

This radiator was also sold under the name of the "electric fireplace."

L'électricité dans le home : chauffage électriqueElectropolis Museum

This advertising postcard shows the radiator in a bourgeois interior. It is placed in front of the fireplace, among the guests.

Radiateur domestique Belling & CoElectropolis Museum

Clean energy

Between the two world wars, electricity companies promoted electric heaters. As opposed to the old ways of heating, they represented a clean, modern, and above all flexible technique.

De la chaleur où l'on veut quand on veut… avec l'électricité, From the collection of: Electropolis Museum
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As well as the manufacturers of electrical appliances, it was the electricity distributors who promoted electric heating, such as the Parisian Electricity Distribution Company (Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d'Électricité, CPDE).

Calendrier Intal, Décembre 1935, From the collection of: Electropolis Museum
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Various types of media such as postcards, calendars, trade show stands, advertising blotters, and even picture cards in schools were used to advertise them.

Radiateur domestique rayonnant TreshoElectropolis Museum

Customers needed to familiarize themselves with the still new technique of electric heating. Therefore, electricity companies, such as the Compagnie d'Électricité d'Angers (Angers Electricity Company), offered hire-purchase schemes.

Radiateur domestique rayonnant, Electro-CaloriqueElectropolis Museum

Some customers still required something a little familiar to reassure them. That's why the materials and shape of this enameled radiator from the 1930s are very reminiscent of the coal stoves of the time.

Le radiateur parabolique, phare de chaleur électrique (vers 1925)Electropolis Museum

This advertising poster, created by the Society for the Development of Applications of Electricity (Société pour le Développement des Applications de l'Électricité, AP-EL), highlighted these new radiators using a particular example…

… bathing an infant.

Radiateur domestique rayonnant ThermaElectropolis Museum

Parabolic radiators, also known as solar radiators, concentrate and return the heat in a precise area, proof of an additional use.

Radiateur domestique rayonnant CalorElectropolis Museum

This radiator, from Marc Birkigt's office, founder of the Hispano-Suiza car brand, was specially made for him and embellished with the logo of his brand.

"Quelle douce chaleur", bon point des années 1920Electropolis Museum

The text on the back of the picture says: "As soon as it's plugged in, the electric parabolic heater provides a cozy, continuous warmth."

Radiateur domestique rayonnant Electro-CaloriqueElectropolis Museum

Evolution in technology and design

Advances in technology leading to the more powerful fan heater or storage heater, as well as the emergence of new materials, like plastics, gave designers the opportunity for new stylistic expression.

Radiateur domestique rayonnantElectropolis Museum

This radiator with its geometric shapes is inspired by the "art deco" movement.

Radiateur domestique rayonnant en fer forgé, vers 1920Electropolis Museum

This model can be seen in a 1920s commercial catalog. This example appears to have been embellished with some decorative elements.

Radiateur "Radiaver"Electropolis Museum

New techniques meant the possibility of new designs. The Saint-Gobain "radiaver" radiator owes its exceptionally modern-looking aesthetic to a patent filed for the molding of heat resistors in glass.

Radiateur soleil JuraElectropolis Museum

New materials also came into play. Bakelite is a very heat-resistant material that allowed for the creation of new shapes and textures.

Radiateur soufflant HMVElectropolis Museum

Other radiators were equipped with a fan that could blow hot air. Designer Christian Barman uses aerodynamic elements in this piece, inspired by the American "stream line" movement.

Le chauffage de demain : Mercedes (vers 1950)Electropolis Museum

In the 1950s, as techniques continued to evolve, the manufacturers of electrical appliances were still highlighting the qualities of electricity compared to other energies, such as coal or gas. Electricity is a clean energy.

Radiateur domestique "Spacemaster" Sofono, From the collection of: Electropolis Museum
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Later, the era of space exploration made a big impression and influenced the design of household appliances, which sometimes took the form of the sputnik satellite and flying saucers.

Radiateur domestique à air pulsé Ostra, From the collection of: Electropolis Museum
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This Ostra radiator is based on the shape of a rocket.

Radiateur domestique à air pulsé AEG, vers 1970Electropolis Museum

The small portable radiator has evolved significantly over time in terms of shape, color, and material. The electric radiators we've come to know today are compact wall units and made to be almost invisible to the user.

Credits: Story

Remerciements :
- à Damien Kuntz, responsable du service scientifique au Musée Electropolis,
- au Pôle valorisation du patrimoine industriel du groupe EDF.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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