Resistance Heating And The Billionaire’s Castle

Yesterday we took a tour of Hearst Castle, and it got me interested in resistance heating. Why is it still around 100 years later when heat pumps are so much more efficient?

One of Hearst Castle’s incredible pools (and the views).

But first, I must say: Hearst Castle struck me much differently then when I first saw it as a 20 year old. Then, it seemed really cool. Set high on a cliff on the beautiful California coast, William Randolph Hearst had built a compound with a movie theatre, dozens of telephone lines and his own switchboard. He had all the newspapers he owned flown in by biplane every night so he could read them in the morning (in the 1920s). My kind of guy!

But this time, I saw the extractive billionaire playboy part, the guy who inherited the money from his rich and politically connected mining magnate daddy (George Hearst), then spent it on over-the-top luxury for himself and his glam Hollywood friends (plus global big shots like Winston Churchill). And doing uniquely ridiculous stuff like importing polar bears for his castle’s ‘zoo’, just because he could.

This billionaire had the best of everything.

William Randolph’s dad George Hearst made his money in silver mining, and became a U.S. Senator. His son used that money to buy newspapers – the equivalent of Elon Musk buying Twitter today, to use them to rile up and/or entertain the masses, and get even richer.

His descendants are still rich, because Hearst Corp later bought TV stations, then got into healthcare, thus funding lots of stock dividends and no doubt trust funds.

And in a weird twist, fifty or so Hearst family members apparently still have the right to come use some facilities, including the fabulous Julia Morgan designed swimming pools – which no one else can swim in – even though Hearst Corp donated the property to the State of California in 1958, before most of them were born. Don’t ask how much gas it takes to heat these pools just for when the Hearsts swim in them, I don’t want to know.

But anyway… back to resistance heating.

Because Hearst always wanted the latest and greatest at his hilltop compound, he was one of the first to install electric resistance heating, and it’s still operational today (I felt it). He got an engineer to build a hydro-powered generator nearby to bring electricity to Hearst Castle, long before most residences had it. This also enabled the luxury of electric lighting.

A vintage 1920’s resistance heating unit, still keeping Hearst Castle warm.

Resistance heating works, but isn’t very efficient (its ratio of energy used to heat generated is 1/1, compared to heat pump which can be 1/4 or higher). But once built into the wall (or into a cheap space heater you already own) it’s just easy to keep using it.

Hearst Castle is an outlier – were it not a museum, they might have ripped and replaced these resistance antiques with gas (or propane) heat long ago.

But it’s not that much of an outlier. Like most American residential buildings, every generation of energy technology is still there. The wood burning fireplaces, the early resistance heating, the central heating (probably propane now but maybe originally oil)?

Not to mention the school buses that carry tourists up the steep windy roads to the castle – by the thousands per day. They’re loud, decades old, say ‘CNG-powered’ (clean energy!) on the side, but look and sound like old polluting diesel buses to me. And they must have to replace the brake pads once a week.

I wonder why ‘ol Hearst never put in a ski lift, gondola or funicular… he seemed down to try everything.

So… Hearst Castle is truly a museum: a museum of billionaires and legacy energy technologies.

I’ll put this post in both my ‘electrified’ and ‘fossilized’ categories. Just like our society today. Billionaires like both – they did then, and they do now.