Skip to content
CityLab
Design

Your Old Radiator Is a Pandemic-Fighting Weapon

Turn-of-the-century faith in ventilation to combat disease pushed engineers to design steam heating systems that still overheat apartments today. 

Age and inexpert maintenance have given century-old radiators a bad reputation. But when first installed, steam heating systems represented a powerful tool to fight infectious disease. 

Age and inexpert maintenance have given century-old radiators a bad reputation. But when first installed, steam heating systems represented a powerful tool to fight infectious disease. 

Photographer: Orlando/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has revived interest in the role design has played fighting infectious diseases. Most famously, the trailblazing modern architecture of the early 20th century — open to nature and filled with light and air, as practiced by designers such as Alvar Aalto and Richard Neutra reflected au courant ideas about health and wellness, especially in combating the scourge of tuberculosis (which also influenced bathroom design). 

The battle against pathogens reshaped the inner working of buildings, too. Take that familiar annoyance for New Yorkers: the clanky radiator that overheats apartments even on the coldest days of the year. It turns out that the prodigious output of steam-heated buildings is the direct result of theories of infection control that were enlisted in the battle against the great global pandemic of 1918 and 1919.