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The Air Conditioner: A Short History

Fan blowing air over ice

Living in south Florida, we tend to view an air conditioning system as a necessity rather than a luxury. But as late as 1965, only approximately of 10% of homes were air conditioned. Families, particularly in the southern states, ran small fans near ice, slept outside, or even put their undergarments in the freezer to help keep them cool as they slept.

Notably, the rise of air conditioning throughout the United States actually aided the long-term shift in U.S. population as southern areas became more habitable and comfortable during the hot summer months. This shift south—and our current comfort levels while indoors—are due primarily to the initial efforts of two men: Dr. John Gorrie of Florida and Willis Carrier of New York.

Dr. John Gorrie – Physician and Inventor

As early as the 1840s, Dr. Gorrie has been credited with putting forth the idea of cooling rooms and cities to mitigate “the evils of high temperatures.” In order to make his patients more comfortable and, as he believed, help avoid diseases such as malaria, he would pay to ship ice to Florida from the north to use in his rudimentary cooling system. To cool rooms, he would put cloths wet with melted ice water in a box and allow air to blow over it. This did cool a room significantly, but required a great amount of ice to keep a room cooled and became very expensive very quickly. Therefore, he began to experiment with artificial cooling systems and, in 1851, was granted a patent for his ice-generating machine using a compressor powered by steam, water, sails, or a horse. Though he was unable to bring this idea to fruition, it laid the groundwork for what we know as modern refrigeration and air conditioning.

Between 1851 and 1902, this idea of artificial indoor cooling didn’t get much traction. But, in 1902, Willis Carrier changed the world as Americans know it today.

Willis Carrier – Engineer and Inventor

In 1901, Willis Carrier graduated from Cornell University with a degree in engineering and took a job with the Buffalo Forge Company. In 1902, he submitted drawings for a machine to mitigate a humidity problem that Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y. was plagued with—humidity was wrinkling pages and causing ink to multi-color print jobs to print incorrectly. His initial invention was called the Apparatus for Treating Air (to humidify or dehumidify the air). He also patented a modified version for regulating humidity and temperature. His later patents and engineering papers still serve as the foundation of today’s air conditioning system and made it possible to design AC systems to specific specifications (building size, humidity needs, etc.). And later in 1922, he invented the centrifugal chiller, which reduced the then air-conditioning system’s size by adding a compressor.

Interestingly, while he may not be a household name, Willis Carrier’s achievements have revolutionized what many would consider the American standard of living. The first HVAC company, the Carrier Corporation, founded by Carrier and six others from Buffalo Forge Company, remains a world leader in heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration solutions. Today, it has close to 45,000 staff around the word as well as numerous subsidiaries.

And Some Time Later…

Since Carrier’s original patent in 1902, additional technological advancements were made and by the 1930s, public buildings, larger department stores, offices, and rail cars were becoming air conditioned. Though it was some time later, not until the 1970s, that air conditioners became common in households as they became more affordable and smaller in size. Today, it is estimated that air conditioners are installed in some form or fashion in almost 100 million homes.

It’s important to note that technological advancements are still being made. In fact, the Emerging Technologies Program of the U.S. Energy Department is currently working on a non-vapor compression technology that is thought to reduce current energy consumption by air conditioning systems by up to 50%.

Great things take time and ingenuity. But, we wouldn’t be as comfortable today without the life’s work of both Dr. Gorrie and Willis Carrier.


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