Insulation is a vital part of the construction of buildings, not only to help keep heat inside a house but also to stop both cold and hot weather from affecting the ambient temperature of the home, and insulation supplies have changed considerably to meet a range of modern construction needs.
Interestingly, whilst the history of the development of modern insulation materials is limited to the past few centuries, humanity has been aware of the need for insulation for thousands of years.
As we understand more about thermal dynamics and the needs of the modern insulated home, as well as the needs of the world around us, the types of materials used for insulation has rapidly evolved.
To understand this, we need to explore insulation from as early a start point as possible.
The Early History Of Keeping Sheltered
In early civilisations, the types of materials used for insulation were limited to whichever building and clothing materials were in abundance, which meant that mud, fur, animal skins, straw and other plant materials were the norm.
The problem with these materials is a short lifespan, which was not a problem for early hunter-gatherer groups who tended to migrate, but they were not a long term solution and required regular replacement to ensure that wooden or stone buildings remained well insulated.
This remained the case from early civilisations until the Industrial Revolution, but one material discovered by the Ancient Greeks would alter the course of insulation from the 19th century until the very end of the millennium.
The Rise And Fall Of Asbestos
Whilst the exact discovery of the material we know as asbestos was unclear, by the first century AD the Romans and the Greeks were using the naturally occurring fibrous material as both insulation and fireproofing materials although due to its scarcity its use was limited to more wealthy members of society.
This changed drastically in the 19th Century with the rediscovery of asbestos, the large-scale mining of the material and its first use In insulation in 1858, mined by the Johns Company based on Staten Island, New York.
Because of its reputation for being fireproof, it was used in all kinds of insulation for over a century, in particular around pipes and in wall and ceiling insulation.
However, there was the problem that asbestos fibres are known to cause serious respiratory illnesses, including lung cancer, inflammation and scarring of the lungs due to breathing in asbestos dust.
Due to its versatility, however, it would take until 1985 for asbestos to be banned in the UK, with it finally being completely outlawed in 1999.
The Rise Of Artificial Materials
The dangers of asbestos were known about as early as 1924, so whilst some manufacturers worked to mitigate the risks, others developed new materials instead.
One of the biggest examples of this was fibreglass when a method to mass-produce it easily and efficiently was invented completely by accident by Games Slater when he fired a jet of compressed air at a stream of molten glass, which due to its ability to trap gas meant that it was an effective insulator.
Later, the development of cellulose and spray foam meant that there were a lot of options when it came to insulation, and more environmentally sound materials and composites are being developed to this day.