A Brief, Breezy History of Air Conditioning

Living through the summer of 2018 has been like living in a pot of boiling water. Heat and humidity kept each other company in much of the country from early spring until … well, they are still hanging out together as I write this in mid-August.

When I wasn’t at book signings in June my wife and I were doing outdoor work for her mom in heat indices of over 100 degrees, which is why I have dubbed that trip the Great West Virginia Book Signing and Suicide by Yardwork Tour. Coming back home to more work in our own yard in the same sultry weather just extended the joy. And so, let me say with the deepest sincerity to Mr. Willis Carrier – THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for inventing air conditioning!

Willis Carrier to the Rescue

In 1902, the 25-year-old Carrier was a young engineer who was given the task of developing a system to reduce humidity at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographic and Publishing Company in Brooklyn, New York, according to “Who Invented Air Conditioning?”, by Elizabeth Palermo at the Live Science site. Humidity and color printing do not play well together.

Carrier’s A-ha! moment came on a train platform in Pittsburgh on a foggy day. Looking at the mist he realized “he could dry air by passing it through water to create fog,” and thereby control the amount of moisture in the air of a given indoor space, according to “”Willis Carrier,” on the Carrier website.

His insight built on earlier experiments with cooling; Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley, a Cambridge University professor, discovered in 1758 that evaporation has a cooling effect, and in 1820 an English inventor named Michael Faraday reinforced that discovery when he compressed and liquefied ammonia.

Fascinating as those experiments were, they didn’t do much to make muggy days more bearable. Carrier’s eureka experience on that Pittsburgh rail platform, on the other hand, led him to design a system of chilled coils that by 1903 was keeping humidity at the Sackett-Wilhelms plant at a constant 55 degrees.

Mmmmmmm. Fifty-five degrees. Sounds wonderful after a day of weeding and pruning with the heat index over 100. Could I get a cold Coke to go with that?

Coining the Term ‘Air Conditioning’

While Carrier was a cool inventor (Sorry; I couldn’t resist.), he was lousy at coming up with names. He called his wonderful invention Apparatus for Treating Air. The same year he installed his apparatus at the printing company, a textile mill engineer in North Carolina, Stuart Cramer, developed a device that added water vapor to the air in textile plants and coined the phrase “air conditioning.”

These advances in manipulating moisture in the air were initially used only in industry and manufacturing, but in 1914 a very rich man named Charles Gates had an AC unit installed in his Minneapolis mansion. This dandy device was seven feet high, six feet wide, and twenty feet long – and several sources claim it was probably never used because Gates died before the 38,000 square-foot home was completed. His wife and children lived there for three years, but no one seems to know if they fired up the cooling apparatus, so to speak.

Even before Carrier and Cramer created their systems, a Prussian-born émigré to Virginia, Robert Portner, had a climate-control system installed in his Manassas home in the 1890s. It combined two systems he had developed for keeping the beer from his brewery chilled. A historic marker in Manassas’s Old Town section commemorates his achievement.

Heat Relief for the Working Class

Regardless of who had the first air-conditioned home, it would be decades before the price of AC units dropped to where working-class Americans could afford them. The air conditioning units you see sticking out of windows cost $10,000–$50,000 when they were first marketed by H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman in 1931. The price had fallen considerably when Americans started snapping them up in the post–World War II economic boom. In the 1970s, whole-house central air conditioning came along, and we Americans happily became summer-heat wussies sitting in our air-conditioned homes, offices and cars while we sagely proclaim, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”

The machinery in the image at the top of the page is a photograph by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., taken September 7, 1949. It was of a Carrier air conditioner in a model house, Orange, New Jersey. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-G612- 55796.

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