The appliances that keep us cool and comforted in our homes and offices today look very different from the first air conditioner that was invented back in 1902. It may be impossible to imagine a world with no cooling system in a hospital, grocery store, or even our homes and offices today, but a dinner party in July or working during a heatwave in June was not possible before the air conditioning invention.
These comfort-inducing units that most of us switch on with a beep on the remote control today are complex electromechanical systems that are products of decades of engineering development. Known as one of the 10 greatest mechanical inventions of the 2000s, these cooling machines have a rich and interesting backstory. Let’s look into some interesting facts about air conditioning that you may have never known!
Who Invented the Air Conditioner?
The man behind the life-saving cooling machine is Willis Haviland Carrier. He invented the first air conditioner when he was only 25 after graduating from the University of Cornell in 1901. His degree in engineering was put into immediate use when he was appointed to solve a temperature problem in a Williamsburg printing house.
Even though Carrier is known as the father of the modern air conditioning system, he built upon the concepts of mechanical refrigeration established years ago. Carrier was known as an experimental engineer, and the first air conditioner resulted from his many experiments.
He went on to become the founder of the first air conditioning company, the Carrier Engineering Corporation, in 1915 and was awarded honorary doctorates from Lehigh University in 1935 and Alfred University in 1942. As a child, the founder of this great invention used to struggle with fractions. His mother taught him the critical topic by cutting apples into fractional pieces. According to Carrier, this lesson taught him the value of intelligent problem-solving.
Where was air conditioning invented?
As mentioned above, Carrier invented the first air conditioning system for a printing house known as the Sackett & Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was working at the Buffalo Forge Company at the time. Due to extremely humid weather in Brooklyn, the printing house faced major issues with the paper’s subscription deadlines.
This was because the paper used for printing the magazine, Judge, would absorb so much moisture from the humid air that it expanded and ruined the colored ink on the paper. The humidity in Brooklyn air also did not allow for the ink to dry. Therefore, Brooklyn, America, became the birthplace of the first air conditioning unit in the World.
However, the basic idea of air conditioning has existed for a while – way earlier than Carrier’s invention. Ancient Egyptians have been known to hang wet mats over their doorways. The evaporated water from these wet mats lowered the air temperature in the surroundings. Similarly, the Romans used aqueducts to circulate fresh water through indoor pipes – which again had the same cooling effect.
How Did it Happen?
The famous story goes that Carrier was walking through the fog in a train station in Pittsburgh. This gave him the idea that getting the moisture out of the air would reduce humidity and make the air cooler. The main idea was to dry the air and produce artificial fog. He started working on this idea in 1902 and completed his invention by the end of the year.
He installed a primitive cooling system in the printing house, which pushed the air through hot water coils. The moisture found in this air would condense over the cold-water coils, not only making the air cooler but also ridding it of humidity. Carrier’s invention performed four revolutionary functions: it controlled the temperature, reduced humidity, ensured air circulation, and cleaned the air.
Who Coined the Term ‘Air Conditioning?’
Interestingly enough, the term ‘air conditioning was not coined by Willis Carrier. Actually, Stuart Cramer was experimenting with ways to add moisture to the air in his textile mill. In 1906, he was able to invent a device that ‘conditioned’ the air in his factories by combining moisture with it.
This enabled him to control humidity levels inside his textile mills, which resulted in increased production efficiency. He called this process’ air conditioning’ and Carrier liked the term so much that he adopted it for his invention and company.
Other Men Deserving of Credit
Just like Stuart Cramer, some other prominent men played an important role in the invention of the modern air-conditioning system. While Carrier is certainly known as the mastermind behind the actual invention, many other people spent their lives experimenting and studying cooling, thermodynamics, and energy efficiency.
The famous Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley (a chemistry professor at the University of Cambridge) were the two minds behind the first documented test for air conditioning theory. This theory was premised on rapidly cooling an object by using the principle of evaporation. They were able to lower the temperature of a mercury thermometer from 64°F to 4°F back in 1758.
In the words of Franklin himself, he concluded that ‘from this experiment, one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.’ – a foreshadowing of the A.C. we have today!
Similarly, another notable name is that of Michael Faraday – an English scientist who, in 1820, discovered that compressing ammonia into a liquid and later evaporating it chills the air inside the room. This laid a fundamental principle for Carrier to build upon.
John Gorrie is the fourth influential name in this series. This man straight-up invented the ice-making machine in 1842, not to make ice lollies, but to keep his patients cool. A physician by profession, Gorrie created a machine that used compressor technology to compress water and air to make ice. When the air was blown over this ice, it became cool, adding to his patient’s comfort.
However, in spite of getting his ice machine patented in 1851, Gorrie was not able to pursue his dreams of keeping the World cool with the mass production of his making machines. This was mainly due to a lack of financial backing, and Gorrie died in 1855.
How was Air Conditioning Introduced to General Public?
You may have wondered what the first air conditioner looked like, and rest assured, it was not even slightly similar to what we have installed in our homes and offices today.
In fact, this brings us to Fredrick Jones, an African American who invented the first-ever portable air conditioning unit. But even these units were only used in the military field to keep the wounded soldiers comfortable.
It was actually post-war that A.C.s were seen as luxurious electrical units installed inside homes and offices at a moderate cost. Similar historical instances point out that the original air conditioner was invented for industrial use rather than personal comfort.
After becoming a successful cooling unit in the printing house of Williamsburg, Carrier’s invention was first installed by the New York Stock Exchange. It became the first building to be air-conditioned just for comfort in 1902. In 1906, Carrier was granted the U.S Patent for an ‘Apparatus for Treating Air .’ In 1913, he developed the Carrier Air Humidifier. This machine was the first self-contained unit with a fan, motor, eliminator, and sprays combined in one package.
However, it was not until the mid-20th century that air conditioning became a fixture of American households. The first platform where the general public experienced the wonders of an air conditioner was a movie theatre. These enclosed spaces were known for their stale air smelling of sweat. In order to win the viewership of the middle and upper class, Carrier’s technology soon became a popular feature in movie theatres, and by 1919, many exhibitors were making cooling machinery for movie houses.
Air Conditioning in the American Landscape Today
Today, Americans cannot imagine a world without air conditioning – or so the statistics tell. The U.S.A. is the largest user of electricity for air conditioning.
In 2016, it used about 616 terawatt-hours of electricity for air conditioning, 464 TWh more than that of the European Union, which has a 1.5 times larger population than the U.S.A.
However, the persistent threat of climate change is pushing technology toward more energy-efficient solutions – which have become imperative given the current climatic condition and global warming. Liebhold, a historian of technology – is hopeful. In his own words, ‘I’m very optimistic about technology; it’s not to say all technology is good, but that we tend to find technological solutions for technological problems.