A Look at the History of Modern Air Conditioning

Willis Carrier - Inventor of modern air conditioning

Although the Romans used their aqueducts to run cool water through the walls of rich people's homes, and Emperor Elagabalus even had a hill of snow built in his garden during summer to help keep cool, modern air conditioning has only been with us since 1902.

Willis Carrier is a fine example of American science and engineering - he only graduated from his engineering course at Cornell University in 1901, and the very next year he invented modern air conditioning.

What I find quite fascinating about this story, which is so often the case in the process of scientific discovery, was that he wasn't trying to find a way to cool our homes on hot summer days, but rather he was trying to find a way to solve a major problem his employer, Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing, were having where high humidity levels were causing ink to smudge and paper to warp. So his invention provided humidity control and as almost a side-effect it provided cooling as well.

Carrier didn't come up with the term 'air conditioning' - that cam from another engineer, Stuart Cramer, who worked at a textile mill and was actually working to achieve the opposite effect of increasing humidity to make yarn easier to produce with fewer breakages - he named this process 'air conditioning' in 1906.

Willis Carrier would adopt this name and go on to found the Carrier Engineering Corporation in 1915 to bring cooling to both businesses and homes throughout America and later the entire world.

The first public space to be air conditioned was the Rivoli Theater in Times Square in the summer of 1925. The theater was playing films to packed houses of people who were just as happy to escape the heat as they were to be entertained - this is where we got the tradition of the Summer Blockbuster from.

Back then air conditioning machines were still very expensive to produce and were mainly used for industrial purposes - even the first room air conditioners in the 1930's cost over $10,000 each - that's a lot considering the average wage in 1934 was only $1,368.

Many entrepreneurs at the time could see that this new technology was going to be huge and as a result a number of companies started up to produce and refine air conditioning systems in an effort to bring them to a wider market.

An excellent example of this were the Goettl brothers who in 1939 formed a company to mass produce evaporative air coolers which would later become known as Goettl Good Guys in Phoenix. They came up with a long list of inventions for conditioning air and ended up with over 100 patents to their names. Just like Carrier, their company is still going strong today, although they don't manufacture anymore, and you can see the modern incarnation of the company at Goettl Air Conditioning.

It's easy to take much of the technology in modern homes for granted, but when it comes to air conditioning that's one we all appreciate when we come home on a hot summer evening and want to relax. I know I'm not the only one who feels grateful - for his achievement Willis Carrier was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1985 and he was featured in TIME magazine's list of the "100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century" in 1998.

It's a pretty cool story don't you think? :)

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