The History of Air Conditioning

In East Hampton, Hampton Bays, Islip, Riverhead, Sag Harbor, Smithtown, Southampton, Westhampton, and Surrounding Areas

Over a hundred years ago, people suffered and sometimes died from a failure to mitigate heat. Though welcome in winter, heat could and did destroy the human race’s food and their productive spirit. Sickness from improperly preserved food in summer was more deadly as stricken people would suffer in hot, humid hospital rooms. The healthy suffered, too, from summer doldrums. Offices, their furniture sticky, saw worker creativity and productivity drop as temperatures and tempers soared. Heat waves brought heatstroke in crowded cities. People who could flee the southern states every summer did so.

Before year-round air conditioning, work and leisure were dictated by outside conditions. During the 20th century, our lives were no longer dependent on the weather. Our indoor weather is controlled by engineered technology that has become so reliable and low in cost that it operates silently in the background, being totally taken for granted, but at the same time is considered an absolute necessity for modern living. But air conditioning did not begin life as a cooling system for homes and offices.

The Invention of Modern Air Conditioning

While standing on a foggy railroad platform in Pittsburgh in late 1902, Willis Carrier had a revelation that would lead to the invention of the modern air conditioner. Carrier’s device evolved from candy factory chiller to the heat and humidity busting personal cooling units now found in more than 80 percent of United States homes.

In July 1902, the 25-year-old engineer had finished designing the first modern air-conditioning system for a business with a production problem: a frustrated printer in Brooklyn, NY, whose color reproductions kept messing up because changes in humidity and temperature made his paper expand and contract, causing a lot of ugly color runs. Unlike previous cooling systems, Carrier’s device regulated humidity in addition to temperature. But Carrier wasn’t satisfied with this first system; he felt that it needed more exact controls. On that cold, foggy platform, Carrier recognized that the lower the temperature, the less water the air could hold. He reasoned that he could raise or lower a room’s humidity by using a device that passed air through a hot- or cold-water sprayer.

He patented the “Apparatus for Treating Air,” in 1906, which made dew-point control – the fundamental basis for development of the air conditioning industry possible. Though it was Stuart Cramer, a textile engineer, had coined the term “air conditioning”.
This idea grew into a series of formulas for regulating air temperature and humidity-the basis of important calculations that still serve the air-conditioning industry. By 1914 Carrier had designed and installed air conditioning systems for manufacturing plants; soap, rubber and tobacco factories; breweries, bakeries, food processing plants and others. However, during World War I, Carrier’s parent company, Buffalo Forge, decided to cut back on his research funding. Undeterred, Carrier and six coworkers created an independent company, Carrier Engineering.

In 1922, Carrier unveiled another major breakthrough: the centrifugal refrigeration machine. Carrier’s new design pumped coolant through the machine much more efficiently, allowing for larger, more stable machines. This made air conditioning practical for places like department stores and movie theaters.

In 1928 Carrier created a residential “Weathermaker” that heated, cooled, humidified, cleaned, and circulated air in homes, but the Great Depression put off its commercialization. World War II further delayed the arrival of residential air conditioners, as Carrier Engineering re-geared its production lines to the war effort. The company’s systems were used to simulate freezing, high-altitude conditions for the testing of prototype planes, and Carrier chillers were taken from department stores and installed in war production plants.

Although Carrier died in 1950 before seeing his invention’s sweeping residential success, his company remains one of the world’s largest manufacturers of air conditioning equipment for residential and commercial applications.

The Ripple of Invention

He’s certainly one of America’s greatest inventors. But unlike Edison, Ford, Bell or the Wright Brothers, his remarkable accomplishment has never been fully recognized. He made indoor sports and summer blockbuster movies possible. His invention facilitated the growth of the microchip and pharmaceutical industries. Some even credit him for the rise of the New South and the Sun Belt. He’s Dr. Willis H. Carrier, he invented modern air conditioning, making the world a much cooler place in which to live.

And think of the difference he’s made. As anyone who has ever suffered through a brutal summer can tell you, if it weren’t for Carrier’s having made human beings more comfortable, the rates of divorce, brutality and murder would be much higher. Worker’s productivity rates would plunge; Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel would deteriorate; rare books and manuscripts would fall apart; deep mining for gold, silver and other metals would be impossible; the world’s largest telescope wouldn’t work; many of our children wouldn’t be able to learn; and in Silicon Valley, the computer industry would crash.

Comfort air conditioning changed working conditions and habits, and influenced the way we live. Work and play are possible in any climate, in any type of building that an architect can dream of. House design shifted from features that facilitated natural cooling, porches, high ceilings, cross ventilation, to spectacular additions like glass doors and large windows. And iconic, modern glass-walled skyscrapers rose across the nation. We may have grown accustomed to cool, comfortable air in our homes, cars, offices, shopping malls, public transportation and movie theaters, but the air conditioning industry continues to solve perplexing problems with comfort in much the same way Willis H. Carrier did when he introduced the first scientific air conditioning system in 1902.

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