Air conditioning celebrates 100th year
Willis Carrier stands tall in the air-conditioning pantheon. He helped lay the foundation for this new engineering science, and his work, which made reliable air conditioning possible, gave the industry an enormous boost. Once again, the "right person at the right time" had combined new science with appropriate, existing components to create a new technology.
Gershon Meckler, PE
Heat & Cold, Mastering the Great Indoors - ASHRAE
As we head into this upcoming air conditioning season, it should be noted that our industry celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
After the near-absence of a winter in our Midwestern home, we are hoping for much sunshine and hot weather to pave the way for big demand for ac service and replacement equipment.
Most people know that the goal back in 1902 wasn't comfort conditioning at all but, rather, one driven by industrial need.
According to the Carrier Corporation, "When Willis Carrier designed his first air conditioning system in 1902, his customer was a frustrated Brooklyn, N.Y. printer who couldn't print a decent color image because changes in heat and humidity kept changing the paper's dimensions and misaligning the colored inks."
But while we like a party as much as anyone, truth to tell, some say that mechanical air conditioning doesn't really have a specific birthdate. It moved forward in steps and stages, much like the automobile, the computer and the airplane. John Gorrie a little-known historical figure who died in 1855 is reckoned by some as "the first person to propose, scientifically discuss, construct and operate a refrigeration machine for comfort cooling," according to "The First Century of Air Conditioning," published by ASHRAE.
Gorrie did this while practicing medicine in hot, steamy Apalachicola, Fla. Described as "a true Renaissance man," Gorrie first devised an air conditioning system not to aid manufacturing practices or for comfort cooling, but to relieve fever-ridden malaria victims - of which Florida had more than a few. He did this by blowing air over buckets of imported ice into the sickrooms.
Another medical use for an early cooling system was to ease the suffering of U.S. President James Garfield, who was dying from an assassin's bullet in the hot summer of 1881. Again, it involved nothing more technologically innovative than blowing air over blocks of ice.
Other equally-unknown industry pioneers followed, such as consulting engineer Alfred Wolff, who devised a cooling system in 1889 for the Carnegie Music Hall. Wolff was described as "probably the first really successful heating and ventilating engineer."
The first home refrigeration came into use in the 1890s, but did not become practical or popular until the 1920s. Many of these early air conditioning and refrigeration systems relied on ice, however - naturally formed ice that was harvested from frozen lakes in the North.
Apparatus for treating airWillis Carrier's early experiments centered around the year 1902 (July 17 specifically, according to Carrier Corp.), although his "apparatus for treating air" didn't appear for sale in a catalog until 1908. Earlier, Carrier's work for the Buffalo Forge Co. focused on reducing the humidity in a printing plant so that paper didn't curl before it could be printed on. Air conditioning as we know it today originally had as much to do with controlling humidity as it did with cooling the air.
Carrier also sold a dehumidification type of air conditioner to a cotton mill in South Carolina in 1906. Carrier convinced his company that humidity control for industry was a money-making idea.
"Before Carrier, there was no practical cooling system that achieved consistent temperature and humidity control under varying loads; thus there was no opportunity for air conditioning to spread into general use. With a large assist from science, Carrier changed all that," wrote Meckler.
The Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America was established as a subsidiary of Buffalo Forge in 1907. It wasn't until the 1950s that the Carrier company and others began advertising air conditioning for homes. Almost immediately, however, the concept began to gain wide acceptance. In 1955, noted homebuilder William Levitt was among the first to begin installing Carrier air conditioners in hundreds of new, middle class homes.
Www.global.carrier.com is carrying a weekly historical feature on interesting air conditioning applications over the years. Other than that, said a spokesperson, there aren't any celebration plans on a large scale. There may be some employee and small-scale ceremonies in July 2003, as the 100 years ends, intended to boost the company into its second century of ac.
Posted on-line in March was the story of bringing snow to hot, humid summertime Houston, Texas. From 1968 to 1983, visitors to the Astroworld amusement park found real snow on the Alpine Sled Ride where temperatures dropped to as low as 10_F. The park also had several outdoor "air relief" stations, unusual for the time, so that patrons not waiting in line or inside a building could take a cooling air shower. The park's ac systems were concealed in interesting ways as well. The ceiling in the Hong Kong outdoor waiting area was made partly of bamboo, with slots cut in the bamboo to accommodate the air outlets. The ductwork in many buildings had to be specially designed to blend in with the interior d¿r.
When it opened in 1968, Astroworld was the world's largest amusement park and featured more than 1,600 tons of cooling, making it home to the world's largest outdoor ac system.
There is no doubt that mechanical air conditioning changed the face of industry and entertainment, but also changed forever was the architecture of our homes and office buildings. Home design began to incorporate larger, flatter roofs and more, bigger windows since heat gain wasn't as much of a problem. Earlier office buildings reflected the styles of classical architecture, tracing their designs back to antiquity, sharing characteristics with Italian palaces of the Renaissance, while newer ones reflected the sleeker, more modern styles still in use today.
Air conditioning also has been responsible for major shifts in the demographics of the United States. Since 1940, eight out of the 10 fastest-growing states are located in the Southeast and Southwest portions of the country, while the Northeastern and Midwestern states have experienced the slowest growth rates.
Las Vegas, of course, grew to one of the largest cities in the country because of gambling, but where would it have been without air conditioning?