The History Behind Air Conditioning

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We turn it on when in spring. In summer we turn it down. We use it in the car, the house, and are grateful for it in stores and offices. The first computer banks had to reside in very nearly sub-zero temperatures to prevent over-heating. 

How did the ancients keep cool? How did families 150 years ago beat the heat? We bet you haven’t considered the history of air conditioning, so here it is along with a few fun facts. 

In The Beginning

In the South of the mid-1800s, families went into the mountains for the summer. The heat caused pestilence in the lowlands. In 1840, Florida doctor John Gorrie devised a method of staying cool. He wanted to put it in hospitals and eventually people’s homes. 

His first idea for an air conditioner was based on ice brought from the frozen lakes of the North. When that didn’t pan out, he devised a method that would cool using ice made from a machine he created, a horse and steam. The snag to that was that his financial supporter passed on, so the doctor’s patent never happened. However, he set the stage for air conditioning and refrigeration as we know it today. 

Fun fact: It’s commonly known that living inside caves and beneath the earth is cooler. Cave men went even further and dug trenches to remain cool. Thus, cavemen were the inventors of geothermal cooling. 

How To Treat Air

Some years later, William Carrier was working at a forge in New York. An engineer, he was asked to formulate something for a printing client. The humidity in the plant was curling and wrinkling the pages they printed for a magazine. 

Carrier engineered a system by which air was humidified or dehumidified using coils. He refined his invention until he had a machine that would cool air and control humidity in textile mills. Carrier left the forge to form his own company. 

Fun fact: Ancient Egyptians, who know a thing or two about heat, hung wet reeds at the windows. The hot breezes blowing in were cooled by the wet reeds. 

Public Buildings Are Air Conditioned

From the Missouri State Building, where the World’s Fair was held in 1904 to movie theaters across the country in the 1920s, air conditioning continued to be refined as it was used. At first, cooling theater air consisted of using refrigeration to cool the air issuing from the heating system. Unfortunately, that left the downstairs crowd cold and the balcony crowd burning up. 

In 1922, Carrier debuted his air conditioner in the Metropolitan Theater in L. A. It blew cool air from vents higher on the walls. Also in 1922, Carrier introduced to the Rivoli Theater in New York City a better designed air conditioner, using fewer parts and compression levels than other air conditioners. 

Fun fact: Some 3,000 years ago, the Chinese invented the first hand-held fan. Not long after, they devised a hand-cranked fan using the same technology. 

Bring It Home

Now it was time to bring the new air conditioner to the public.. However, the unit was too big and bulky, not to mention expensive, for use in homes. Between 1929 and 1932, engineers at Frigidaire, General Motors, and General Electric worked on getting the air conditioner smaller and more affordable. 

Henry Galson, an engineer, developed the first window air conditioner that was small enough not to need major buttressing and so affordable that everyone could have one. He had them built on several different companies’ conveyor belts. In 1947, 43,000 units were built and sold. Now everyone could sit in cool comfort and listen to the radio in the evenings. 

Fun fact: The Victorians built their homes with high ceilings, so the air would rise. The room would remain cool. They also built their windows recessed for cross-ventilation. 

Air Conditioning Today

As the ’60s rolled around, every new home had air conditioning. Window units remained popular in both industry and private homes. The Energy Department reports that air conditioners are in 100 million homes, or 87 percent of the population. The Energy Department has also devised numerous money-saving programs for homeowners to save on energy. 

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