The History of Air Conditioning

The History of Air Conditioning

Air conditioning must be one of the most important inventions of modern times and it now plays a vital part in all our lives; from cooling our businesses, cars and homes, to hospitals and even computers.

But how did it all begin? We look back at the history of air conditioning and how it has evolved over the years to the technology we are installing for our customers every day.

How did air conditioning begin?

Attempts to cool buildings have been around for a long time and some of the first attempts date back to the ancient Chinese, the medieval Persians and Egyptians who all experimented with methods of generating artificial cooling.

In 1758, American inventor Benjamin Franklin, along with John Hadley, a professor at Cambridge University, began experimenting with the refrigerating effects of certain liquids. Previously, Franklin had determined that the refrigerating effects of a liquid are related to how quickly it evaporates. He and Hadley used ether and a bellows to cool down a mercury thermometer to 25 degrees below freezing.

In 1820, British inventor Michael Faraday was also experimenting with the refrigeration properties of gases when he discovered that, by compressing and liquidizing ammonia and then allowing it to evaporate, he could cool the air inside his laboratory.

However, it was in the 1830s, when physician and inventor Dr John Gorrie of Florida wanting to make patients more comfortable, created an ice-making machine using a compressor powered by a horse to make buckets of ice, that blew air over them, who really experimented with the first concept of artificial cooling. Dr Gorrie patented his idea in 1851 but unfortunately lack of financial backing didn’t see his invention come to fusion.

Then in 1881 when US President James Garfield was shot by an assassin, naval engineers built a cooling unit filled with water soaked cloth and a fan that blew hot air overhead repressing the cooler air much closer to the ground, keeping the President cool and comfortable. Half a million pounds of ice was used in two months but unfortunately President Garfield still died.

Willis Haviland Carrier and The Appartus for Treating Air

Others came forward with similar cooling ideas but the first ‘modern air conditioner’ machine was created by Willis Haviland Carrier in 1902.

Through a series of experiments, Carrier invented the ‘Apparatus for Treating Air’ while he was working for the Buffalo Forge Company.  Carrier was tasked with solving a humidity problem at Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn, New York. The machine Carrier created was the first large scale electrical air conditioning unit and was designed to blow air over cold coils which cooled and removed moisture from the air, so controlling both room temperature and humidity. This was extremely important for the printing company as it prevented the magazine paper from wrinkling and kept the ink aligned. The machine and Willis Carrier received huge interest from other printing factories and Carrier went on to establish Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America.

In 1906 a textile engineer Stuart Cramer went on to create a device that had the ability to add water vapour to the air in the textile factory. The humidity helped treat the yarn making it easier to spin. Cramer was the first person to call this process ‘air conditioning’.

First home air conditioning unit

1914 saw the first air conditioning unit installed in a home. The seven feet high, six feet wide and twenty feet long unit was installed inside the mansion of Charles Gates in Minneapolis. However, due to their size, noise and the fact that they were full of chemicals, air conditioning units really didn’t take off for several more years.

in 1931, H. H. Schultz and J.Q Sherman invented an individual room air conditioner which sat on a window ledge, a design that is still used today. The large cooling unit cost between $10,00 and $50,000, that’s between $120,000 and $600,000 in today’s money!

In 1939 Packard invented the first air-conditioned car but unfortunately it didn’t have any dashboard controls which meant you would have to pull over and pop the bonnet and disconnect the compressor belt to turn the air conditioning off!

In 1942 the US built its first power plant, named a ‘summer peak’ plant to handle the ever-growing electrical load of air conditioning demands.

After World War 2, in the economic boom in America, air conditioning become extremely popular and the ‘must have’ item to have in your home; over one million units were sold in 1953 alone.

From 1957, rotary compressors were introduced, allowing units to be smaller, quieter and lighter in weight and, from the 1970s, central air conditioning has been implemented in most commercial buildings in large cities across America.

In a future blog post we will discuss how air conditioning crossed the Atlantic to become a billion-dollar industry here in the UK.