Willis Carrier, Inventor of Air Conditioning

Today we take air conditioning for granted. There can be community “brown-outs,” household power outages, or families who prefer open windows. But for the most part, Americans are able to spend a good deal of their time in a climate-controlled environment.  

However, the invention of air conditioning had little to do with “people comfort,” and everything to do with business challenges caused by heat.

Press photo of Willis Carrier dressed in a business suit, probably 35-40 years old.

The fellow who developed a workable cooling system in 1902 was Willis Carrier, a recent engineering graduate from Cornell University.  His remarkable invention came in response to a factory problem that arose from the summer heat and humidity in a lithograph and publishing company in Brooklyn, New York.

Before Air Conditioning

Since early man, heat has been a factor that has affected many parts of the world. The hand fan is at least 5000 years old.

On plantations, the wealthy used a cooling method developed in China in the 2nd century. The device involved a very large overhead fan that was powered by slaves or servants.  The person turning the wheel or otherwise powering the fan stood behind a curtain so that the rich family did not have to see how much sweat it took to keep them comfortable.

If people had the option of relocating during the summer months, some families moved to the seaside or the mountains where it was cooler.  Otherwise, people made good use of their porches, sitting outside in the evenings as the weather cooled down. Many people added sleeping porches with screens so that they could sleep outside, too.

ceiling fan for room cooling

Scientific Experiments

Scientific experiments were going on around the world, looking for ways to cool the air. As early as the late 1700s, Benjamin Franklin noted that rapid evaporation of volatile liquids such as alcohol and ether could begin the cooling process. With all of the other things needing his attention, he didn’t make much progress after that though.

More progress was made by a physician in Florida in the 1850s. Dr. John Gorrie observed  that his patients improved when the weather was a little cooler. When his wife became very ill, he rigged up pans full of ice and hung them near the ceiling in her hospital room. The ice cooled the air around the pans.  Since cool air is heavier, it flowed downward.

It was thought to be the first effective system of room air conditioning. 

But ice was expensive, and it had to be brought to Florida by ship. Gorrie set to work to create an ice-making machine. He received a patent on his invention in 1851. But unfortunately, his financial backer died. He was unable to continue on with his novel project.

Patient at the Executive Mansion

In 1881, newly elected President James Garfield was shot by a gunman when he and his sons were at the D.C. train station planning on a July trip to Massachusetts.

President James Garfield, press photograph with him in a business suit

Medical help was summoned immediately. Garfield was still alive, but the bullet was lodged in him. He was taken to the Executive Mansion. In addition to medical personnel, naval engineers were called to find a way to make the patient’s room cooler.

The naval engineer established a system where sheets dipped regularly in ice water could be hung near the patient. Then s fan blew through the sheets, keeping the president slightly cooler than he might have been. (No one had yet figured out what to do about humidity.)   

Garfield remained alive for the next two-and-a-half months but eventually died from infection.

Factories Bring People to Cities

As industrialization came about in nineteenth century America, people left farms to take jobs in the towns and cities. While a few factories had to shut down during the summer months, most factories stayed open.  Workers were expected to endure hot temperatures inside the workplace.

On Metropolitan Avenue in East Williamsburg Brooklyn, a new printing plant was completed in 1902. One of the company’s biggest jobs was to print the humor magazine, Judge. Judge was a weekly, satirical magazine that printed in color.

At that time, color printing involved running each page of the magazine through the press, one time for each color used on the page. It was a painstaking process. If the heat and humidity were too high, one color was printed on one day. The next color couldn’t be printed until the next day because the ink had to dry.

A sample cover of Judge, a satirical magazine published in four-color in the early 20th century.
Library of Congress

There were also other problems. In the warm weather, the paper absorbed moisture from the humid Brooklyn air. This expanded the newsprint by a fraction. The variation in the printing could be enough that when the page ran through the press for a second or a third time, the illustration no longer matched up as it should have.

Solution Needed

Just as today, many companies offer both heating and cooling solutions. This was true at the Buffalo Forge Company in Brooklyn. The furnace company recently hired a new engineering graduate from Cornell. They assigned Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1950) to go to the lithograph company and see what might be done to cool the environment around the printing presses.

Carrier began working with fans, ducts, heaters, and perforated pipes. His plan was to force air across pipes filled with cool water from a well that was located between the two buildings of the printing plant.

In a lab, Carrier continued to experiment. He knew that he needed to devise a way to pull moisture from the air. He eventually developed the ability to simultaneously control both the temperature and humidity in an indoor space. 

While Carrier rigged up a partial solution for the summer of 1902, he continued to work on the system. By 1903, he and fellow engineer Irvine Lyle equipped the printing plant with a larger, improved version of their machine. Key to the process was an ammonia compressor to chill and rechill the water.

In 1906, Carrier received a patent for his “Apparatus for Treating Air.” Progress was coming, but at this stage, the machinery needed was big and the cost was so high that only businesses could afford to install units.

Spun Off From Company

In 1914, the Buffalo Forge Company saw that World War I was coming. Even if the U.S. remained out of the war, the company management knew that for their salvation they needed to limit their work to manufacturing.  They let go seven of the young engineers who had been working with Carrier.

Black and white photograph of Rivoli Theater, advertising "Refrigerating Plant"
Carrier Photograph

But the men were ready. In 1915, they pooled their savings and formed the Carrier Engineering Company, basing it in Newark, New Jersey.

Interest in Air Conditioning Grew

By the late 1920s, summer editions of newspapers were fill with ads for “Conditioned Air.”  Many heating contractors had gone into the cooling business. It was not unusual for an entire page of the newspaper to be filled with classified ads for companies that installed air conditioning.

Overhead view of a candy factory. Visible are the lights and the air conditioning and many working women in white uniforms.
Without air conditioning, products like candy could not be made in the hot summer months. Carrier Photo

The systems were still too big and too costly for use in homes.

As a result, air-conditioned rooms were newsworthy. On Sunday, July 6, 1930, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch featured a photo and short article noting that the Hotel Mark Twain Coffee Shop and Dining Room remained at 70 degrees “even on the hottest days.”

Carrier Talks of Invention

Willis Carrier was also happy to provide editorial copy for the advertising pages. On June 22, 1930, he writes about the fact that the “man on the street” might view air conditioning as a new thing, but that industry had been benefiting from it for several years.

In his article, Carrier cites several examples of industries that have benefited from air conditioning. Among them, candy factories, textile industries, printing companies, and many others could now operate year-round.

Coming to the Workplace

By 1935, professors and efficiency experts were touting the fact that air conditioning saved companies money. A professor at Colgate University had studied the issue. Dr. Donald Laird of Colgate wrote in the “Review of Reviews” magazine that “…[employee] errors are 50 percent less likely to happen in conditioned than in nonconditioned air where people are uncomfortable. “Air conditioned stores sell more goods, air conditioned theaters leave a lingering appeal upon customers to return.”

Ad showing an illustration of a ship from 1937, touting the benefit of sailing the ocean on a fully air-conditioned ship.
Ad for a Carrier-cooled ship that sails the high seas, the Nieuw Amsterdam, Carrier Photo.

Carrier’s commercial business continued to grow. Air conditioning was being added in restaurants, department stores, and other places where the public could go.

Smaller Units Needed

Home air conditioning, however, lagged behind. “Swamp coolers” were big in the South. These were usually located in attics and consisted of an oversized fan blowing through a dampened screen. Though they brought room temperatures down somewhat, they were a far cry from air conditioning. 

When World War II ended, progress in smaller air conditioners began to be made. By 1953, companies were selling a million window units a year. A few builders were also building suburban homes with central air conditioning. They saw that certain less expensive design accommodations could be made if they weren’t designing for other types of cooling from windows and attic fans.

Window air conditioning unit in a big city. istockphoto.com

Progress Today

Today air conditioning makes day-to-day life in warm climates more comfortable, but it also has saved lives because fewer people die of heat-related illnesses.

The cooled air has also made new types of electronics possible.  Because air conditioning cuts down on the dust generated from fans and open windows, manufacturers can now set up computers and various types of electronics that need “clean rooms,” 

But there has been a downside. As manufacturers worked with different chemicals that could increase and speed cooling, they began using chlorofluorocarbons (also known as Freon) as coolants. Unfortunately, scientists eventually saw that the chemicals made their way to the upper atmosphere and has been creating a hole in earth’s ozone layer. 

We need that layer of protection to shield earth from the sun’s radiation. By the late 1980s, the United States phased out their use.

As for Willis Carrier’s company, Carrier Worldwide is still a major player in the industrial and residential cooling and refrigeration field. The company now works on sustainability and prides itself on the progress it has made over more than one hundred years.

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4 thoughts on “Willis Carrier, Inventor of Air Conditioning”

  1. Susan Schwartz Twiggs

    I remember going to Mississippi in the 1950’s as a child and how hot and humid it was with one noisy room air conditioner. This history puts it all into perspective.

  2. Yes…before air conditioning, it could be very uncomfortable, particularly in areas that were humid!

  3. Janet Richardson

    I remember going from Texas to New Orleans; it felt hotter because of the humidity.

  4. Yes…learning to control the humidity was important…but I have to say when I lived in Colorado and people said it was a “dry heat,” it still felt hot! Thanks for posting.

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