The Unexpected History of the Air Conditioner

August 21, 2021

Working inside an office during a heatwave in June. A dinner party in July. Buying chocolate in August. If you talk to Salvatore Basile, author of the book Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything these things wouldn’t have happened in America without the ability to cool the temperature around us.

“It has shaped our world to the extent that people can carry on very normal lives during the hot months, which would not have happened before,” Basile says.

Today, almost 75 percent of U.S. homes have air conditioning, but for an appliance that has become a near necessity for Americans, one of the first of its kind was surprisingly unconcerned with human comfort.

At the turn of the 20th century, humidity threatened the reputation of Brooklyn’s Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographic and Publishing Company’s high-quality color printing. After two summers of extreme heat disrupted business and caused swelling pages and blurry prints, the printing company found that a nascent cooling industry could offer help.

Willis Carrier, a 25-year-old experimental engineer, created a primitive cooling system to reduce humidity around the printer. He used an industrial fan to blow air over steam coils filled with cold water; the excess humidity would then condense on the coils and produce cooled air.

“Not only did it solve the problem, but [the cool air] started to make people comfortable, and then the lightbulb went off,” Basile says.

Even Carrier knew that his initial invention was not the most effective way to control humidity and continued tinkering with the technology. By 1922, Carrier had created the safer, smaller and more powerful Centrifugal Refrigeration Compressor, the precursor to modern air conditioning. At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, one of the first practical centrifugal refrigeration compressor’s dating to 1922 is held in historic recognition of Carrier’s feat.

Experts are quick to point out that crediting Carrier as the father of modern cooling technology would overlook decades-long efforts by other inventors who used refrigeration to make hot days more productive or comfortable, though. Long before Carrier was even born, University of Glasgow professor William Cullen evaporated liquids in a vacuum thus creating refrigeration technology as early as 1748.

More than 100 years after that, John Gorrie, a Florida doctor, used a small steam engine to cool air so that his patients suffering from tropical illnesses could be more comfortable. Gorrie called his invention an “ice machine.” New machinery that could produce cool temperatures would seem like an exciting proposition during the Industrial Revolution, but Gorrie’s efforts to patent and popularize his invention were thwarted. Northern icemakers who profited from shipping ice to the South lobbied against Gorrie and benefited from a public skeptical of the artificially cooled air produced by Gorrie’s ice machine.

“That system was so revolutionary that he died penniless. He simply couldn’t get anyone to believe that it worked,” Basile says.

And while Americans had long built fires inside their homes to keep warm for centuries, the idea of a cooling system was a completely different beast. The Smithsonian’s Peter Liebhold says efforts to control one’s environment also raised moral questions.

“There was this notion that trying to control the environment was going against God’s will,” says Liebhold, a curator in the division of work and industry at the National Museum of American History.

But air conditioning was slowly gaining acceptance and Carrier was making inroads. Maybe the world was just hot and ready for relief, but the young, charismatic engineer proved successful as an evangelist for the cooling industry. Basile writes that unlike many Americans in the early 1900s, whose “unbendingly Victorian” attitudes were rattled by the turn-of-the-century’s explosion of new machinery and technology, Carrier was a recent engineering graduate eager to rely on emerging science and mechanics and the business world was ready.

Manufacturers of everything from leather to macaroni were acutely aware of how changing weather conditions threatened their product, and Carrier’s equipment garnered more interest with enthusiastic press coverage. In the summer of 1906, the publication Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer wrote that “the hot summer days now prevailing make one wonder why ventilation with cool currents has not been thoroughly well exploited before these days.”

While air conditioning was taking the industrial sector by storm, it was the movies that managed to introduce the general public to cooled air.

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