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The Evolution of Air Conditioning

Air conditioning has had an exciting journey. From fans to HVAC units, cooling the air around us has improved our quality of life.
Comfortable Air Conditioning Setting

One of the things that my friends in dryer climates always tell me about the south is that they don’t know how I can put up with the humidity. My response usually includes spending a lot of time beside the water and air conditioning.

I don’t think I could do July in the Carolinas without it. AC is one of my favorite inventions (along with toilet paper, automobiles, and the internet). In fact, in 2000, members of The American Society of Mechanical Engineers voted that air conditioning was one of the “10 greatest mechanical engineering achievements of the 20th century.”

People are always interested in the origin stories of their favorite superheroes, so sit back and relax while I share some facts about the origin story of one of my superheroes–air conditioning.

  • We can date ideas about cooling air back to the 2nd century in China. An inventor named Ding Huane invented a manually powered rotary fan.
  • Inventor and statesman Ben Franklin had some interest in the area. Around 1758 he designed experiments around evaporation and alcohol that resulted in him being able to reach freezing temperatures.
  • Energy.gov tells the story of Dr. John Gorrie. Dr. Gorrie was a physician in Florida who hypothesized that being able to cool things off would help avoid diseases like malaria and help patients heal by making them more comfortable. His original plan to make this all happen was to have ice brought down from northern lakes and streams. As this was a logistical nightmare, he devised an invention to create ice using a “compressor powered by a horse, water, wind-driven sails or steam.” He received a patent for his invention in 1851 but was never able to see his dream come to fruition due to the death of his financial backer.
  • The first AC was invented in 1902 by an engineer named Willis Carrier. Carrier was tasked with figuring out a way to keep humidity at bay. The humidity in a printing plant in Brooklyn was causing magazine pages to wrinkle. His solution was to pass air through coils filled with cold water. This cooled the air and removed the humidity.
  • In 1906 the term “air conditioning” was coined by Stuart Cramer.
  • In 1914 the World Fair was held in St. Louis, Missouri. They used “mechanical refrigeration” to cool parts of the Missouri State Building. The unit was able to move 35,000 cubic feet of air a minute. To understand how impressive this is, the average unit today moves around 1,000 cubic feet of air per minute. It was the first experience many people had with the idea of cooling air to increase comfort.
  • The first residential AC unit was installed in 1914. It took up a lot of space, being 7 feet high, 6 feet wide, and 20 feet long—units like this cost a staggering $120,000 to $600,000 in today’s currency.
  • Air conditioning started being added to public places such as theaters. The problem was that they would pump the air through vents in the floor. Since we know that hot air rises and cool air falls, you can imagine how inefficient this was at cooling a large auditorium. The lower levels would be too cold, and the upper levels would remain hot and muggy. In 1922, Carrier (mentioned above) invented a system in Los Angeles that allowed for cool air to be pumped through vents that were higher up. Placing the vents higher helped the temperature to be more evenly controlled.
  • 1931 brought around the invention of the first window unit by H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman.
  • By 1943 air conditioning was catching on. A staggering 43,000 AC units were in use.
  • In 1960 brought around the normalization of building new homes with central AC, and AC units were readily available at a more affordable cost, $416. ($4,000 in today’s currency)
  • The Energy Information Administration (EIA) said that by 2009 87% of homes in the U.S. had air conditioning units. (That’s about 100 million homes.)
Air Conditioning Saves Lives

As you can see, air conditioning has had an exciting journey. Not only does it aid in comfort, but the good Dr. Gorrie was onto something when he thought that cooling would save lives. According to Coyne College, “between 1960-2004, heat-related deaths in the US were 80% lower than they had been in the previous 59 years.” The EIA reported that 48% of all energy usage in the US is from cooling and heating.

RetroFoam of the Carolinas would love to help you stay comfortable and cool in the Carolina summers (and warm in the winters). Our services will save the life of your HVAC unit, save you money on your monthly energy bill, and keep the temperatures in your home comfortable all year long. Contact us to find out how.

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