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The History of Insulation

Just like the structure of the physical building has progressed, so has the way humans have kept the climate of those structures comfortable with thermal insulation. Learn more about how insulation has advanced over time.
history of insulation

When you consider the types of homes humans have lived in over the centuries, you can’t help but be impressed with the thought and ingenuity that has gone into them. From caves and cliff dwellings to tents and castles, humans seem to have done it all. I even heard about a lady who used recycled bottle caps as the decoration on the outside of her home. As the years have progressed so have the homes, so much so that there is an entire science dedicated to studying the way the components of a building work together. What building scientists have come to realize is that buildings are made up of many parts, but that each of those parts work together as a system to make a home or building comfortable and efficient.

One of the most important components of a building system is the insulation. Just like the structure of the physical building has progressed, so has the way humans have kept the climate of those structures comfortable with thermal insulation.

What is Thermal Insulation?

Thermal insulation is pretty much anything used to stop the transfer of heat. We like warm air– just not the hot southern heat seeping through our walls in the summertime. And we definitely don’t like the snuggly warmth of our homes seeping to the outside during the winter.

Lots of people think of insulation as something that keeps the cool air from getting out or the cold air from coming in when in fact insulation is all about the movement of heat and warm air.

Thermal insulation is meant to slow that movement of hot/heated air. The idea is that if we can slow it down enough our HVAC units will be able to produce enough heat/cool air so that we don’t get uncomfortable.

And for the most part they do…until we get the bill. Then ‘uncomfortable’ can take on a whole different meaning.

Let’s take a look at how humans have tried to keep the ‘uncomfortable’ at bay over the years.

History of Insulation

How did the First Humans Use Insulation?

Like most topics, you can trace the origins back to our early ancestors. Prehistoric humans needed insulation too and since they traveled a lot, their insulation needed to be able to travel with them or be readily available when they reached their next destination.

Animal skins, fur, and plant material like reed, flax and straw were their ‘go-to’ insulation sources. Turns out that all the space in animal fur, and the space between the plants created an air cavity which reduced the exchange of heat.

The more that our ancestors evolved, the longer they lived and the more they developed. The increase in agriculture allowed for them to have permanent dwellings. More permanent dwellings meant the invention of more efficient insulations. Here are some materials that have been used over the years to keep us warm.


Mud has been used in several different ways, from making bricks to filling in cracks, it has been a very important resource. Egyptians used mud to make thick bricks that would keep them cool and shield them from the hot desert sun and offer protection from the cool desert nights. Vikings would use mud to fill in the cracks in the walls of their home, thus stopping the chilling winds that would blow through their homes.


Asbestos is a term that many of us are familiar with, because not too long ago it was used as an insulator. But believe it or not, it has been around for many centuries. Ancient Greeks discovered asbestos and used it as insulation. It was recognized for its resistance to heat and fire. In fact, the name asbestos means “inextinguishable.”

Humans continued to use asbestos over the years. During the industrial revolution, when steam power was all the rage, asbestos was used on hot pipes in order to keep people safe. It was also used in the earlier models of automobiles.  It wasn’t until the later half of the 20th century that people realized how toxic asbestos was to human health.

Tapestries and Art Work

While tapestries and art work certainly added some light and beauty to the dark ages, they weren’t only there to look at. They served another purpose. By hanging large tapestries and large pieces of art, people were able to add a layer of insulation to their walls. These large wall coverings helped to stop the drafts that would blow through the walls.


Fiberglass is one of the most popular insulations used today. However, it was created by accident in the 1930’s when a group of scientists was attempting to improve glass technology. When a high pressure stream of air was sprayed at molten glass the molten glass created glass fibers, and thus the invention of fiberglass. Although it was invented in the 1930’s it became a popular home insulation material in the 1940’s.


Cellulose rose to popularity in the 50’s. It was made from materials such as newspaper, cardboard, straw, and even sawdust.


Polyurethane foam became more common in the later parts of the 1970’s and continued into the 1980’s. Its ease of installation and its ability to fill in the nooks and crannies made it even more popular in the building industry.

In 1965 building regulations were changed to require all homes to be built with insulation in the walls. Since then, fiberglass, cellulose, and spray foam have continued to be the most common choices for home builders. Over the decades each form of insulation has been refined to offer homeowners optimal results. There is a list of pro’s to go with each form of insulation. At RetroFoam of the Carolinas, we believe that our injection foam and spray foam are the superior forms of insulation. Reach out to us today to find out all of the many reasons why we feel this way. We love talking foam!

Enjoy this infographic showcasing the History of Insulation in homes, created and published by RetroFoam of Michigan! (you can find the original here!)

Created and originally published by RetroFoam of Michigan


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