As we get through the dog days of summer here in Florida, it’s important to be grateful for the important invention we now take for granted: the air conditioner. These cooling marvels can now be turned on with a simple press of a button and are barely over a century old.
Can you imagine getting through these humid months without one?
One of the greatest mechanical engineering achievements of the 20th century also has a fascinating history.
10 Historical Air Conditioning Facts
1 – Many Tried And Failed
Man had been attempting to create air conditioning for nearly 2,000 years. Air conditioning has been experimented with all the way back to the second century. A Chinese inventor named Ding Huane was the first person ever to craft a manually powered rotary fan. His invention had seven, three-meter long, wheels that were powered by men to produce cooling airflow. Due to the heavy demand for manpower, which in itself heated the room, the invention never caught on.
Even the face of our $100 bill Benjamin Franklin used to conduct experiments on evaporation and alcohol to prompt freezing temperatures in the mid-1700s. However, the first modern unit wasn’t brainstormed until the 1900s.
2 – Ice Makers Didn’t Like The Invention
Back in the 1840s, a Florida doctor named John Gorrie thought it would be a good idea to keep places cool. The benefits were innumerable, including fighting disease and keeping people cozy from the Sunshine State humidity. Massive blocks of ice were transported from frozen lakes in the north to chill hospital rooms, but getting ice to the south was obviously unreasonable.
A machine was devised that made ice using horsepower combined with wind-powered sails or steam. Due to stonewalling from northern ice makers who profited from their shipping business, there was no financial backing and the initial conception was abandoned.
3 – Inspired By Yellow Fever
Gorrie was heavily involved in civic engagement and was eventually elected mayor of Apalachicola on the west coast of Florida. When yellow fever hit the area in 1841, Gorrie spent the brunt of his time devoted to his medical ambitions, exploring treatment options for the ailing. He noted that the fevers were negatively influenced by heat. When no one wanted his machine, Gorrie claimed that his invention had, quote, “been found in advance of the wants of the country.” After suffering from a nervous collapse prompted by his failures, Gorrie died penniless.
4 – The Emergence Of Carrier
The invention date of AC is officially 1902 and credited to Willis Carrier, an engineer in Buffalo. Carrier was tasked with solving a humidity issue at a Brooklyn publishing company that struggled with extreme heat compromising their prints. The patent was called an “Apparatus for Treating Air”.
The invention used cooling coils to either heat or cool water, depending on the humidity. An unintentional side effect was how comfortable workers were with the chilled condition. The success of his apparatus led Carrier to form his own engineering corporation, which remains the biggest manufacturer in the world.
5 – Big And Expensive
Similar to the computer, early models of air conditioning needed a room of their own. The first residential unit was seven feet high, six feet wide, and 20 feet long. The price tag was also hefty, usually priced from $10,000 to $50,000, or close to $600,000 in today’s currency.
6 – Defies The Lord’s Will
At first, there was considerable pushback from religious devotees. Some Christians were convinced that controlling the environment was going against God’s will. The New York Globe went so far as to lambast John Gorrie, claiming, quote, “There is Dr. Gorrie, a crank… that thinks he can make ice by his machine as good as God Almighty.”
However, Willis Carrier’s charisma as an evangelist for the AC industry prevailed, and people grew weary of the heat. The new century’s renaissance of new technology gradually shifted detractors.
7 – Cooling Spread Fast
Following its creation, AC was popularized very quickly. Initially, only industries concerned about weather conditions threatening their product adopted Carrier’s equipment.
Two years after Carrier conceived his invention, the St. Louis World’s Fair utilized mechanical refrigeration for their fair events. For many, it was their first glimpse of cool treated air. The same year, theaters began incorporating the system into their facilities. An issue where humid air rose was later resolved in 1922, where higher vents were placed in theaters, equally distributing comfortable temperatures.
8 – Competition Rises
Several companies and inventors flocked to the HVAC scene following the success of Carrier’s engineering. General Electric patented 32 prototypes in 1930, including the first implementation of coolants into their units. The following year, H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman brainstormed the first room air conditioner — a window ledge installation similar to modern-day portable units.
The new industry also attracted quacks; one inventor was convinced that he could connect a balloon to a fire hydrant and create a rainstorm. Another thought carbon dioxide bombs could cool the air upon detonation.
9 – Interesting Presidential History
Before air conditioning, Washington D.C.’s summer of humidity would prompt elected officials to vacate the area for cooler climates. The first air conditioning was used via an electric blower with cotton screens wet with ice water in 1881 when the mortally wounded President James Garfield lay on his deathbed.
President William Howard Taft attempted to install air conditioning in 1909 with the same unit; however, the device was problematic and the project was abandoned.
It wasn’t until 1930 that the White House was equipped with a central air-conditioning system, during President Calvin Coolidge’s administration. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had units added to private quarters but preferred to work with short sleeves and windows open.
10 – Modern Day Miracle
In 1947, 43,000 air conditioners were installed. Within a decade, it was standard for most American homes to be equipped with the unit. As time progressed, air conditioning decreased heat-related death in the USA by 80%.
Today’s unit still incorporates the same science as Carrier’s original symptom, including operations via vapor compression, materials, and energy efficiency. However, advancements improved a quieter machine. Remote thermostats and sophisticated energy usage capabilities allow users to adjust functionality with a computer or cell phone.
We often take air conditioning for granted. When the Florida summer sun shines its heat upon us, we just crank it up and enjoy the relief of the cool air. Hopefully knowing a bit about the history will give you an appreciation of just how lucky we are to have modern air conditioner units keeping us living cool in the Sunshine State!
I set my thermostat cold! At least 68, sometimes 65.