The Ultimate History of Air Conditioning

The air conditioning season is almost upon us here in the UK and is in full swing in other parts of the world.

Thanks to its purposefully unobtrusive design you can be forgiven for forgetting air conditioning is there at all. However, its quiet and gently cooling nature hides a colourful and, dare we say it, rather interesting past. We’ve seen a few brief explanations of the history of air conditioning out there but nothing too substantial.

Therefore, we have decided to take it upon ourselves to produce an in depth, all singing, all dancing history of air con that’s also easy to digest. So sit back, relax and enjoy our ultimate history of air conditioning.

B.C: Ancient Egyptians hung wet reeds in their windows. As air was blown over them it was cooled by evaporation. This created a cooler and moister interior atmosphere for their homes.

persian windcatcher for history of air conditioning articleB.C: Persians used Windcatchers (pictured), tall towers with wind shafts that pulled air over water before circulating it around the building, to cool their homes.

B.C: The wealthiest of Roman citizens used water from the impressive aqueduct system to run through the walls of their villas, cooling the atmosphere in the process.

B.C: Emperor Elagabalus imported snow from nearby mountains, via donkey trains, and stored it in the garden next to his villa to keep cool during the summer.

2nd Century: Chinese inventor Ding Huan invents a rotary fan with wheels that is manually powered.

747: Water powered fan wheels and water jets are installed in the Cool Hall in the Chinese Imperial Palace.

1758: Benjamin Franklin and his mate John Hadley discover that evaporation of alcohol and other volatile liquids can cool down an object enough to freeze water.

1820: Michael Faraday makes a very similar discovery when he compresses and liquefies ammonia.

john gorrie's ice machine for ultimate history of air conditioning blog post1830: Dr. John Gorrie builds an ice-making machine (pictured) that uses compression to create ice and blows air over it. He patents the idea in 1851 but without financial backing dies a pauper in 1855.

1881: The assassination of President James Garfield sparks the creation of a room cooling device. Naval engineers build a cooling unit that is filled with water-soaked cloth coupled with a fan that blows hot air overhead and keeps cool air closer to the ground. This helps to keep the President as comfortable as possible. Impressively the invention can lower room temperature by up to 20 F but uses half a million pounds of ice in two months. To add insult to injury President Garfield still popped his clogs.

1902: The first modern air conditioner was created by Willis Carrier. The Apparatus for Treating Air was built for the Sackett-Willhelms Lithographing & Publishing Co. in Brooklyn. The machine worked by blowing air over cold coils to help control room temperature and humidity. This is important in a printing warehouse as it prevents the paper from wrinkling and keeps the ink aligned. In response to huge amounts of interest in the machine Carrier founds the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America. Check out the below video for more information on Carrier’s discovery.

The same year air con is installed in the first office building.

1904: A self-contained mechanical refrigerator that uses ammonia and connects directly to an ice box is created.

1906: A textile mill engineer in North Carolina named Stuart Cramer creates a device that adds water vapour to the atmosphere of textile plants. The humidity helps treat the yarn making it easier to spin and less likely to break.

A patent is filed for a dew point control system that led to standardised air conditioner units.

The first office building that is specifically designed for air conditioning is constructed.

1914: An air conditioning unit is installed in the Minneapolis mansion of Charles Gates. The unit is about 7 feet high, 6 feet wide and 20 feet long and was likely never used as the house stood empty.

1922: Willis Carrier makes two critical breakthroughs in air conditioner design. He replaces the toxic coolant ammonia with the much safer coolant dielene and greatly reduces the size of the units making them more accessible than ever.

sulfur dioxide for history of air conditioning blog post1929: The first room cooler with 1 ton capacity is created. It is designed for use outside the home or in the basement and uses sulfur dioxide (pictured).

1930: Centrifugal chillers begin to be used for air conditioning on trains.

The Great Depression begins and greatly slows the rate of air conditioner production.

1930s: Air conditioning starts to be installed in movie theatres across America. Increasing their appeal during scorching summer months.

1931: H.H.Schultz and J.Q. Sherman invent the first individual room air conditioner that fits onto a window ledge, a design that is still used today, even in the most technologically advanced models. The units are sold a year later for the reasonable price of $10,000 and $50,000 (that’s $120,000 and $600,000 in today’s money!)

1938: The first window air conditioning unit that utilises Freon is created.

packard-one-eighty-for-air-con-history-blog-post1939: Packard invents the first air conditioned car, the Packard One-Eighty (pictured). Unfortunately it doesn’t have dashboard controls. This means that if you want to change the temperature you have to pull over, pop the bonnet and do some fiddling.

The outbreak of the Second World War sees air conditioner production and use take a military focus.

1947: British scholar S.F. Markham says, “The greatest contribution to civilisation in this century may well be air-conditioning – and America leads the way.”

1950s: Further improvements in air conditioning size and safety help spark a building revolution, both in terms of building size and location, in America.

1954: The Nash Ambassador is the first compact, affordable, single-unit heating and A/C car with dashboard controls.

1957: Air conditioning’s reputation for decreasing worker productivity is flipped on its head with numerous studies showing that a cooled environment actually improves worker output.

1969: Refrigeration technology helped man reach the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in space suits with cooling systems which helped protect them from outer space.

1975: Global warming is ‘discovered.’

1987: Minimum energy efficiency requirements are set for room air conditioners as well as freezers and refrigerators.

hole in ozone layer to represent montreal protocol for air conditioner history blog post1987: The Montreal Protocol is established as an international agreement to eliminate CFC refrigerants in response to a growing hole in the Earth’s ozone layer. You can find out more about this here.

1992: Minimum energy efficiency requirements are set for commercial buildings.

2004: It becomes illegal to use R22 refrigerant in new air conditioning equipment.

2014: UN initiative to further cut HFCs announced in Abu Dhabi.

There you have it, a pretty comprehensive history of air conditioning from its inception as a concept in Ancient Egyptian times through to the modern day. We’ve done our best to include everything we could but if you think we’ve missed something why not let us know in the comments below or via our social media profiles.

Written by Ryan Hill

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