We've all lived in those terrible, old, cheap buildings that seem to be held together by Elmer's Glue, let more of the outside in than they keep out, and boast as their crowning jewel a big, clunky, silver accordion of metal to (over)heat the place.

It might seem like a relic from a time when electricity was popularly thought to be witchcraft, and it is, but it's more clever than it lets on. It dates back to a time when people were reeeeally close to figuring out what causes disease, noting that people who spent a lot of time in enclosed spaces with other people tended to get sick and deciding it was caused by a lack of fresh air. They were only wrong in the sense that the stale air has to also contain another person's germs, but it turned out that encouraging people to get outdoors and keep their windows open was still pretty helpful to public health. When the 1918 flu pandemic came along, it was mandatory. Literally: Big cities ordered their residents to keep their windows open, even on the most frigid days. That meant people were gonna need some big-ass radiators to keep themselves warm, and just like that, the bane of every college dorm was born.

As the years went by and people figured out that it wasn't strictly necessary to huddle next to a scalding hot pipe while it snowed sideways directly into your house, the scalding hot pipes remained for a lot of complicated reasons, even as fuel sources changed. This, plus the delicate balancing act that steam heat already requires, led to most of the modern complaints about these radiators: They make the room too hot, they make a lot of noise, and they might melt your face off if you get too close, and not in a fun guitar solo way. That's actually why they're often silver: A certain kind of silver paint inhibits heat transfer, making the radiators slightly more bearable. But they get so hot because they were always meant to operate with the windows open, and in these germy times, it might not be a bad idea. Like your mom and the CDC says: A little fresh air won't kill you.

Top image: Jon Eric Marababol/Unsplash, Julian Hochgesang/Unsplash

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