Cooling Off: The History of Air Conditioning

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Cooling Off: The History of Air Conditioning

Long before the days of zoned temperature controls designed to give each room your home a distinct and unique comfort level, people all around the world would dream of days when the cool air would fill their homes, jobs, and favorite hangouts. Whether you were the wealthiest person or the poorest farmer in your state, everyone was equal in their discomfort during the hot summer months.

As discussed in an earlier blog, everyone struggled to find a bit of comfort in the sweltering summer sun. From moving into caves to sitting on ice blocks, people discovered all sorts of ways to stay cool, all of which required a lot of effort and little cooling.

It would not be until the late 1800s that a New Orleans inventor named Schuyler Skaats Wheeler would create the first electric fan that let people sit back and relax as they found the sweet, breezy relief they had only dreamed of before. Nikola Tesla’s alternating current motors are to thank for the oscillating fan, allowing the whole room to benefit from cooled air.But it wasn’t enough.

As luck would have it, one very wise engineer was working on a project that would change the face of comfort forever. That engineer was Willis Carrier.

Before Carrier could put together the right combination of components to create his masterpiece, he first had to look to the inventions of the past to find the necessary workings and ideas from previous inventors who tried, like Carrier, to cool off the world.

In 1758, mega-inventor Benjamin Franklin and professor John Hadley document that when alcohol and some other dangerous liquids evaporate (which they do at a greater rate than water), they can freeze water left behind. More than 50 years later in England, inventor Michael Faraday discovers how to compress and liquefy ammonia.

Dr. John Gorrie builds an ice-maker and air blowing combination to cool down rooms of the hospital. Though he patented the idea in 1851, it would not be the success he had hoped it could be. A similar contraption was built by a team of naval engineers in 1881 to cool down the sweltering President James Garfield, who was recovering from an assassination attempt. The machine required one-quarter of a million pounds of ice each month to cool a single room, making it wildly impractical and expensive.

Then, in 1902, while working for the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographer, engineer Willis Carrier searches for a way to reduce the humidity in the printing plant. The mechanical unit pushed air through coils cooled by water and was tremendous in size. Twenty years after that, Carrier would create the centrifugal chiller to the unit, which brought down the unit’s size considerably.

That was when people took notice of Carrier’s machine, and word spread fast.

On Memorial Day weekend in 1925, Carrier’s air conditioner was unveiled to the public at the Rivoli Theater, a popular hang out in New York’s Times Square. Soon, other movie houses followed suit and installed air conditioners, drawing crowds by the thousands who wanted to spend an afternoon away from the blistering heat.

From there, air conditioners would come to shape our modern society. Find out more in Part Two of our blog!

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