Who Invented the Air Conditioner?

I took some time away from the computer during the summer, being slowly crushed by the heatwave. Not living in the US, I don’t have an air conditioning apparatus to keep me fresh. It’s just not a thing in Europe and I read articles about US citizens being shocked by that revelation. It’s a strange reaction, but where I live, there are usually two weeks a year of high temperature. Nothing to justify investing in more than a fan.

Anyway, this topic picked my interest in the invention of the Air Conditioner. As usual, let’s answer a question:

Who Created the Air Conditioner?

First things first, what are we talking about when we are using the term “air conditioning?” According to dictionary.com:

1. a system or process for controlling the temperature, humidity, and sometimes the purity of the air in an interior, as of an office, theater, laboratory, or house, especially one capable of cooling.
2. an air conditioning system or unit.

We are clearly not talking about just creating cold. Back in the 16th century, they used to mix ice with potassium nitrate to do that—remember, ice was only for rich people, like when they made ice cream! Research has been made into the matter for years and years (centuries!) because the sun never stopped shining and people always get hot at some point, somewhere on this big rock we call Earth.

Ben Franklin worked on it, along with John Hadley, a chemistry professor at the University of Cambridge. They explore the idea of using evaporating liquids to lower the temperature of an object. It worked to some degree.

In the 19th century, real progress was made. The English scientist Michael Faraday (known for his research on the magnetic field and the discovery of benzene) discovered the effect that ammonia could have on the temperature. Compressing and liquefying ammonia chill air, at least when you allow the liquefied ammonia to evaporate.

Making Ice

It was the first step. The second was made two decades later by a Nevisian-born American physician and scientist named John Gorrie. As a doctor, he was working in the field of medical research. As he looked into a way to fight malaria, he explored the idea of cooling the rooms to limit the flow of air between the patients. This idea led him to experiment with making artificial ice.

Gorrie successfully mechanically produced ice for the first time in 1844. A year later, he left the field of medical research to dedicate himself to the production of refrigeration products. He got his first patent in 1851 for a machine to make ice. He was not the first to obtain a patent for something like that. Jacob Perkins got one for an “Apparatus and means for producing ice, and in cooling fluids” in 1834. It was based on the idea of another American inventor named Oliver Evans, and it was about the vapor-compression refrigeration cycle.

James Harrison’s Ice-Making Machine (source)

Gorrie’s invention worked, but it didn’t get the money to go further. His creation needed too much ice to be effective.

In Australia, engineer James Harrison was in the newspaper business when he started to develop his interest in refrigeration. For him, everything started when, while cleaning movable types with ether, he noticed the cooling effect of the product. When the ether evaporated, the metal type became cold to the touch.

Harrison built his first mechanical ice-making machine in 1851. Three years later, launched his first commercial machine and was granted a patent for an ether refrigeration system granted in 1855. He then went to England where he patented his invention. The brewing industry and the meatpacking factories quickly started to use his machine. He got ambitions, some were so big it ruined everything for him—he installed a refrigeration system on a ship, but the meat was not kept fresh long enough.

The Father of Air Conditioning

Willis Carrier earned an engineering degree from Cornell University in 1901, and it didn’t take long after that for him to find his calling. At that time, he was employed at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Company of Brooklyn, New York. There was a problem that needed to be fixed: during summer, the paper was barely usable because of excessive humidity.

Carrier started working on a way to control the humidity in an indoor environment. There was an existing hot-blast heating system previously installed by Buffalo Forge that Carrier used for inspiration. He reversed it, in a way. His invention pulled in the hot air from the room and passed it through a spray of water in order to wash down dust particles. After that, the air passed through coils with cold water, getting rid of the extra humidity while lowering the air’s temperature and finally, the dehumidified air was sent back into the room.

Carrier solved this problem by developing a simple belt-driven system that pulled in the hot air from the room and passed the same through a fine spray of water (washing down dust particles). The treated air was then passed through coils with cold water. As a result, the extra humidity was eliminated and, as a bonus, there was a lowering of the air’s temperature! In the end, this cooled dehumidified air was sent back into the room, offering better conditions to work on the paper.

The control of the temperature was not the first goal to achieve, but it was what changed everything. In 1906, Willis H. Carrier received a US Patent for his air conditioner system. At that time, it was named “Apparatus for Treating Air.”

Indeed, Carrier was not the one who coined the term “air conditioning,” it was a mill engineer from Charlotte, North Carolina named Stuart W. Cramer who’s to be credited for it. Cramer also created a device to control the indoor environment, but it was in order to add moisture to the air in his textile mill.

Carrier quickly adopted the term “air conditioning” and even incorporated it into the name of his company: the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America.

In 1914, the first domestic air conditioning machine was installed in Minneapolis—but was never really used as the house was uninhabited. In 1931, H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman developed their own version of the air conditioner, the one designed to sit on a window ledge. A year later, an air conditioning system for cars was introduced.

In 2019, it was estimated that 90% of new single-family homes constructed in the USA included air conditioning.

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