2 women leaning against an old air conditioner. vintage. black and white picture.

The History of Air Conditioning

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At one point in time, when air conditioning first came to be, it was a luxury item that only the wealthiest people could afford.

However, now it is seen as a necessity to homes and buildings to keep cool during the hot months.

Pretty much any building you go to is going to have air conditioning. In fact, it has been found by the Energy Information Administration that almost half of all of the energy used in homes is because of heating a cooling of the house.

Air conditioning has come a long way from the first models to our modern day air conditioning. There have been many advancements over the year by scientists as well as inventors you have created new ways to solve cooling problems in today’s society.

Let’s take a look back at the history of air conditioning.

Where it All Started

It was during the 1840s when Dr. John Gorrie, physician and inventor, introduced the idea of cooling areas to help residents live more comfortably even in the high heat of Florida.

Dr. Gorrie hypothesized that cooling the cities would help to avoid diseases such as malaria. Along with that, it was also though to make patients in hospitals more comfortable. His original idea was to haul in ice from lakes that had frozen over up north to Florida.

Dr. Gorrie needed to find a way to cool rooms more easily without having to haul ice which could be very expensive. This is when he began experimenting to find an easier and cheaper solution. First, Gorrie created an invention that could create ice on its own by using its compressor that was powered by horse, water, and sails or sometimes steam.

In 1851 he was given a new patent for his invention. However, Gorrie was not successful in bringing this idea to the public. This was because of the death of the financial banker. Even so, his invention was the beginning of air conditioning today.

Carrier Discovers a Breakthrough

Gorrie’s idea was put on the back burner for quite a while. Then an engineer named Willis Carrier began a new job that brought us closer the first electrical air conditioner. In 1902 Carrier was employed by the Buffalo Forge Company. He was hired to solve an interesting problem, one where the magazines were wrinkling due to humidity, at the Sacekt-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company located in Brooklyn.

Carrier went on to do a litany of tests and experiments. Through these experiments, Carrier created a model that would control humidity by using coils that cooled the area. He was granted another patent for this experiment that he called an “Apparatus for Treating Air.” This invention could both humidify and dehumidify depending on whether the water was heated or cooled. He continued to work on his product to make it even better and more technologically advanced. His new automatic control system helped to regulate humidity as well as temperature of the air in the textile mills.

Carrier began to see that his humidity control along with air conditioning projects could be beneficial in many industries. He then moved on from his job with Buffalo Forge and started his own company, Carrier Engineering Corporation.

Public Buildings Get Air Conditioning

In 1904, during the St. Louis World’s Fair, workers used a form of mechanical refrigeration system to keep the Missouri State Building cool.

This particular refrigeration system used about 35,000 cubic ft. of air every minute. It was the first experience that Americans got to feel the comforts of air conditioning in an auditorium.

A few years later in the 1920s, Americans began going to the movie theaters and with it came the need for cooling the air in those spaces.

The first cooling systems were just modified heating systems. They used refrigeration equipment which sent up cool air through the heating vents. This caused lower floors to be much colder than the upper floors.

It was in 1922 when the Carrier Engineering Corp. installed working cooling systems for theaters in the Los Angeles area. This style also pumped cold air into the higher vents to keep temperatures stable at all floors.

Carrier debuted a new air conditioning system to the public at Rivoli Theater located in New York in May of 1922. This system used a centrifugal chiller. It had few moving parts and compressor stage, which made the systems more reliable and had lower costs than some of the previous air conditioning systems. This new advancement led to more installations of large-scale air conditioners throughout the United States.

Air Cooling Comes to Households

Even with all the advancements, these air conditioning systems were still too expensive and way too big for use in a home.

Using the technology available, Frigidaire created a split-system room cooler in 1929. This system was finally small enough to use inside the home.

However, this new system was still very heavy and expensive and needed its own condensing unit.

Later, Frank Faust, an engineer of General Electric, improved the design by creating the self-contained cooler room. General Electric created 32 similar models in 1930 and 1931.

It was also around this time that Thomas Midgley, Albert Henne, and Robert McNary, who worked for General Motors used synthesized chlorofluorocarbon coolants. This was the world’s first fluids that were nonflammable used for refrigerating.

However, this chemical was eventually found to cause the depletion of the ozone which caused the product to be phased out of use to help protect against climate change.

In the 1990s, Hydrofluorocarbons were brought into use because they did not affect the ozone, but these were later found the cause climate change.

Air conditioning became even smaller when H. H. Schultz and J. Q. Sherman began a patent on an air conditioning unit which would fit on the ledge of a window. These types of units came to the public in 1932, however, they were still unattainable to most families because of the high costs. Only the wealthiest of people owned one.

Later, an engineer by the name of Henry Galson developed an even more compact, and also less expensive version of this window model. By the year 1947, about 43,000 air conditioners were sold. Homeowners finally got the taste of the luxury of air conditioning.

By the 1960s, new homes were being built with central air condition systems, because the costs finally dipped low enough for people to afford. This shift in home construction also caused window units to become more affordable.

Today, about 87% of houses have some form of air conditioning, according to Energy Information Administration.

Improvements in Efficiency

Air conditioning continued to become more popular around the 1970s, but the infamous energy crisis came to be.

Because of this, lawmakers made laws to help reduce overall energy consumption which created the Energy Department’s Appliance and Equipment Standards Program. This helped to create a national standard for efficiency in air conditioners and did away with leaving it up to the states.

An increase in manufacturing standards has continued since 1992. These standards are expected to save 29 billion dollars on energy bills from 1993-2023. Another standard was passed in 2006 and is expected to save about 70 billion dollars on energy bills from 2006-2035. These programs have greatly improved efficiency in the technology of air conditioning. The air conditioners of today use half as much energy as they did in 1990.

Air Conditioning of the Future

Along with standards for appliances, the Energy Department’s Emerging Technologies Program has helped support research as well as development to create even more efficient air conditioning.

There is currently work on a non-vapor kind of compression technology to help increase efficiency. It also helps to protect the environment from the fumes from earlier versions of the air conditioner.

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