A Short History of Air Conditioning – Part 1

As you know, our subject here at Just Venting is HVAC. As in, news, information, and advice about everything to do with the industry itself, including issues of facility management, sustainability, efficiency, cleaning-and-maintenance, changing government policies, new technology trends, and more.

But today we’d like to drop the “HV” briefly and focus exclusively on the “AC.” And we’d like to start by posing a question: Have you ever thought about the fact that humans have possessed artificial heating capabilities (the “H” in HVAC) for literally thousands of years, ever since we first mastered the creation and use of fire, and we’ve had ventilation capabilities (the “V”) for pretty much our entire history, but we’ve only had the right technology to cool our buildings artificially –- that is, true air conditioning –- for about a hundred years?

These are interesting facts. And the history of air conditioning is therefore an interesting story. And more than that, it’s a hugely important story, because –- and it’s no exaggeration to say this –- the invention and ongoing evolution and perfection of air conditioning technology has literally changed the world and altered human history by changing everything about how and where we live, work, and inhabit our planet.

But the details about the more epic developments in this story will have to wait for a future post in this series. For now, we’ll look briefly back to the bare beginnings of air conditioning.

AC: The Early Years

Attempts to figure out how to cool buildings have been around for as long as there have been buildings and hot weather. For example, the ancient Chinese, the medieval Persians and Egyptians, and at least one European Renaissance-era inventor all experimented with methods of generating artificial cooling and using it to make indoor temperatures more bearable (see the “History” section of the Wikipedia article on air conditioning). All ancient peoples knew about various methods of architecture and construction that would allow for maximum ventilation and take advantage of natural weather cycles.

But the early experiments that involved modern Western science and led the way to modern-day air conditioning didn’t occur until the 18th and 19th centuries. There was a lot of experimentation with using ice to help cool sick patients and even entire buildings. In this endeavor, Florida physician John Gorrie (1802-1855) was a pioneer with his patented “cooling machine” that employed a rudimentary air compressor (see “John Gorrie, The Visionary” (pdf), ASHRAE Journal, December 1998).

Things really didn’t kick in until the late 19th century, however. In 1882 the first electric power plant opened in New York, thus making it possible for electricity to be delivered to New Yorkers for various residential and commercial uses. This soon led to central station refrigeration being used to preserve foods and documents (“History of Air Conditioning,” Allsands.com).

Office buildings in New York City became grounds for a lot of experimentation with cooling methods after the turn of the century, beginning especially with the opening of the new building for the New York Stock Exchange in 1903. This building was in fact one of the first buildings in the world to use an air conditioning system that resembles the modern one (The New York Stock Exchange Building”).

And who, pray tell, invented this technology? It was a man named Willis Haviland Carrier (1875-1950), an American engineer and inventor who had invented the first large-scale air conditioning machine – large enough to cool a building – in 1902 for the purpose of improving manufacturing process control in a Brooklyn printing plant. The revolutionary advance he brought into the fray was a machine that controlled not only temperature but humidity via the use of chilled coils.

But Carrier’s story forms the next chapter in the saga, and so we’ll save it for the next post in this series.

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