When I was a schoolboy, one of my chores after I walked home from school was to stir up the coal in our furnace, so that the fire, which had been banked during the day, would flare up start to warm our house again.
Both my mother and father worked outside the home for pay, so there was no sense burning coal unnecessarily when nobody was home.
The coal was in a huge pile in our basement, delivered by the coal company through a chute. We had to remember to shovel new coal in the furnace at regular intervals, especially just before we went to bed at night, lest the fire go out.
Restarting a furnace fire was a major operation. What we should have done was to start a fire with newspaper and kindling wood, then add more food and then, when the fire was going strong, add coal
What my dad actually did was to splash kerosene onto the coal, toss a lighted wooden match into the furnace and then jump back. I do not recommend this.
The coal burned down to ashes which collected in the bottom of the furnace in big metal tubs. Another one of my chores, when I was big enough, was to help my father carry the tubs out to the curb to be collected.
I imagine my father thought having a furnace at all and having coal delivered to the house was a great advance. He grew up in a farm with only a stove in the kitchen for heat.
I myself have a gas furnace which I control with a thermostat. That’s a lot easier than shoveling coal. But on Saturday night, my furnace failed—with temperatures outside below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
I phoned Betlem Heating, and a service technician came by a few hours later. He quickly diagnosed the fixed the problem—a failed thermocouple—and was on his way.
He told me he had many calls that night, each one to a place 20 or 30 miles from the one before. But he said he didn’t mind. That was his job.
I have a much easier life than my father and grandfather. But compared to them, I am much more dependent on complex systems that I don’t understand—not just the furnace, but the whole interdependent web of people and institutions that bring the gas to my house.