The history of air conditioning began long before the installation of the first wall unit in 1914. In fact, the art of artificial cooling dates back to the ancient Roman Empire. Centuries later, HVAC is now a thriving industry in America with a market value of more than $90 billion.
The History of Air Conditioning: How Cooling Became a Hot Industry
Since the beginning of time, man has searched for solutions to the problem of staying cool in the heat.
Our brief history of air conditioning begins in Ancient Rome, where wealthy citizens were able to rely on the local aqueduct system to circulate cool water through the walls of their homes.
Later, in the Third Century, the Roman emperor Elgabalus tried another solution to defeat the heat. He had donkey trains cart piles of snow from the mountains to keep his villa cool during the summer. But, as the world entered the Dark Ages, indoor cooling was put on the backburner for many centuries.
In the 1840s, Dr. John Gorrie, a physician and inventor, advanced the ideas of cooling cities to help people avoid diseases, like malaria. He developed a rudimentary system for cooling hospital rooms, but it needed ice to be shipped from frozen lakes and streams. Since that proved to be a logistical nightmare, he began experimenting with artificial cooling.
Gorrie patented a machine in 1851 that created ice by using a compressor powered by a horse, water, wind-driven sails or steam. Although the product never made the marketplace, it is still considered to be a major building block in the history of air conditioning.
Thirty years later, another early attempt at air conditioning was used to ease the pain of a dying President James Garfield. A cooling device, which blew air through cotton sheets doused with ice water, helped the commander in chief get relief from the summer swelter.
Willis Carrier, the Father of the Modern AC
Willis Carrier is credited with designing the precursor to the modern electrical air conditioning unit.
In 1902, he was given the task of solving a humidity problem, which was wrinkling magazine pages at Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in New York. To solve the issue, he used coils to both cool and dehumidify the air.
Two years later, a home air conditioning unit, which was noisy, full of chemicals and as large as a mainframe computer, was installed for the first time.
Air Conditioning Comes Home
The earliest air conditioning units were too large and too expensive for most American homes. They were generally viewed as a luxury.
In 1929, Frigidaire introduced a split-system room cooler, but its weight and price prevented widespread household use. By 1930, General Electric produced 32 AC prototypes that improved on early technology.
The game changed in 1932 when H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman received a patent for an air conditioning unit that could be placed on a window ledge. By 1947, 43,000 of these types of cooling systems were sold. Today, 87 percent of all American households benefit from some type of air conditioning.
Central Air now the Most Popular Way to Cool
Since the 1940s, cooling technology has radically improved. Gone are the days of noisy wall units. In their place, many homes have cool air coming directly from supply and return ducts.
Throughout the centuries, the history of air conditioning is a story of evolution and innovation that is not yet finished. As new technologies emerge, it will likely become easier and cheaper to beat the heat.