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A Brief History of Modern Air Conditioning

Posted on The Cooler Blog May 22, 2013

Air conditioning in 2013 is among the most under-appreciated advancements in technology since the 1700s. Even though many parts of the world lack adequate heating and cooling, air conditioning remains a part of life that most shrug off. Nevertheless, air conditioning has a rich history steeped in engineering and ingenuity.

Ding Huan
One of the very first instances of air conditioning being used dates back to second century China. During this time, inventor Ding Huan was putting the finishing touches on a 3m wide archaic rotary fan, comprised of seven wheels. Because it was manually powered, Huan’s design unfortunately didn’t become popular until another inventor got a hold of it in the 740s.

Liang Tian, employed by Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty, adapted Huan’s initial idea and used it to construct a “Cool Hall” in the emperor’s palace equipped with water-powered fan wheels. Following the trend of Xuanzong and the two inventors, rotary fans became commonplace for many of the Chinese people looking to beat the heat for centuries to come.

  • The first instances of air conditioning date back to second century China.
  • Ding Huan pioneered the first ever rotary fan.
  • Liang Tian adapted the idea and constructed the first temperature controlled room.

Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley
It comes as no surprise that Benjamin Franklin played a role in the invention of modern air conditioning. As the story goes, Franklin and cohort John Hadley were experimenting with the evaporation of volatile substances such as alcohol and ether as a way to lower an object’s temperature below freezing.

Using a billows pointed at the bulb of a mercury thermometer to speed up the reaction, the two men evaporated the alcohol and ether which lowered the temperature of the bulb from 64 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. After noticing a thin layer of ice forming on the bulb, Franklin was reported to have said, “…from this experiment, one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.”

  • Ben Franklin and John Hadley believed that evaporating volatile substances could lower temperature.
  • The two men lowered the temperature of a bulb to seven degrees Fahrenheit.
  • After noticing ice on the bulb, Franklin concluded a man could be frozen to death on a summer day.

John Gorrie
The first mechanized air conditioner was built in the 1830s by physician, John Gorrie, as a way to fight yellow fever and malaria in Florida. After encountering throngs of people afflicted by these diseases, Gorrie believed that by cooling patient rooms he could formulate a cure.

His initial design was a steam-powered air compressor, which siphoned the air through metal pipes to create basins of ice that hung from the ceiling of patient rooms. Gorrie’s refrigerator received a United States patent in 1851 but unfortunately failed to make him any money, forcing him into bankruptcy until his death in 1855. Although the machine worked, it was often leaky and bogged down with other performance problems.

  • John Gorrie hypothesized that colder temperatures could cure yellow fever and malaria.
  • Gorrie’s initial design compressed air that siphoned through metal pipes which created ice basins that hung from the ceiling of patient rooms.
  • Unfortunately, Gorrie’s refrigerator performed poorly and eventually bankrupted him.

Willis Carrier
What started as a humidity problem at Brooklyn, New York’s Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Company, became the setting for Willis Carrier’s legacy as the “Father of Cool.” At the time exceedingly warm temperatures and humidity were causing alterations in the paper which led to inconsistencies in the multicolor printing. These harsh conditions were responsible for excessive waste and even lost production days.

Carrier’s apparatus, as opposed to Gorrie’s, utilized cold water and heating coils rather than steam to chill the air. By allowing the water to flow through the coils, Carrier was able to balance both the temperature of the coils and the rate of air flow to lower the temperature of the room. By the summer of 1902, the first AC unit was installed at Sackett & Wilhelms and modern day air conditioning was born.

  • Willis Carrier’s apparatus utilized cold water and heating coils rather than steam to chill the air.
  • Carrier was able to control not only temperature but also humidity with his device.
  • Upon installation at Sackett & Wilhelms, modern day air conditioning became a commodity for business, and inevitably homeowners, from the 1900s to now.


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