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The History of Air Conditioning

I know we have a few history buffs out there that have been wondering, “What is the history of air conditioning?” Well, today is your lucky day! Godby has scoured the history books internet in order to give you a quick overview of how it all began.

First of all, when most people here the phrase ‘air conditioning,’ they picture the modern machines that help cool us down. But, the words ‘air conditioning’ simply mean a system for controlling the humidity, ventilation, and temperature in a space.  So… you could be conditioning the air to be hotter…just sayin’.

But let’s talk about what went into keeping you cooler than cool.

As far as we know, it all began with Ding Huane from China. In the second century he made a manually powered rotary fan. But it wasn’t until centuries later, in 1758, that good ole Ben Franklin and John Hadley (a professor from Cambridge University) conducted experiments with evaporation and alcohol. These two found that alcohol evaporates faster than water and because of this it can cool an object down enough to freeze it. About 70 years later, in 1820, a chap named Michael Faraday, from England, discovered the same thing when he compressed and liquefied ammonia.

In 1830, Dr. John Gorrie, from Florida, built an ice-making machine trying to fight malaria in a Florida hospital. Dr. Gorrie used compression to make buckets of ice and then blew air over them to cool the space. He patented his idea in 1851, but with no “Shark Tank” to help fund his invention, his dream of cooling becomes nothing but that- a dream.

President James Garfield was shot by an assassin in 1881. When treating the wound, doctors didn’t bother to wash their hands when treated the wound and trying to recover the bullet, but who needs clean hands? And, of course they wanted the President to be comfortable, so in order to keep the room cool and help with Garfield’s rising temperature, naval engineers created a box-like unit filled with water-soaked cloth. A fan blew hot air over head (because, remember, hot air rises), keeping the cooler air closer to the ground and the President up to 20°F cooler. But alas, a half-million pounds of ice later, President Garfield dies.

Fast forward twenty years and in 1902 an engineer by the name of Willis Carrier invented the first modern air conditioner called the Apparatus for Treating Air. Some say Carrier stole Dr. Gorrie’s idea, but Carrier was just trying to resolve an application problem in a New York printing plant. Carrier took the concepts of mechanical refrigeration and created a machine that blows air over coils filled with cold water. His snazzy machine not only kept the paper from wrinkling and the ink aligned in the printing plant, but it also cooled the air and removed moisture in the air helping control the humidity.

In 1906, Stuart Cramer coins the term ‘air conditioning’ when he created a device that added water vapor to the air in some North Carolina textile plants. More humidity in North Carolina? Who needs that? Well, the humidity made yarn easier to handle with less breakage.

Charles Gates of Minneapolis had air conditioning brought to his mansion. He knew that if air conditioning could help yarn from breaking and chocolate from melting in factories, it could certainly keep him cool at his house.  In 1914 the Gates mansion had a unit built that was 7 feet high, 6 feet wide and 20 feet long. That monstrosity was built, but Gates never got to enjoy it as he died in 1913.

In 1931, H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman thought we could pair down the size of the air conditioner and still stay cool. These two invented the individual air conditioner. In 1932 the units were able to be bought, but only if you had $10,000 to $50,000 to buy one. So, the rich got cooler and the rest of us continued to sweat.

Being no dummy, Carrier realized that people thought that staying cool was cool and in 1933 he created the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America. By 1942 the U.S. had to create a “summer peaking” power plant to keep up with the electrical load of air conditioning.

After World War II having air conditioning in your home was another way to show your wealth. In the 1950’s, if you were sitting at home watching “I Love Lucy” on your television set and your residential air conditioning was keeping you cool, you must be the Joneses. Everybody was trying to keep up with you!

In the 1970’s, central air conditioning was cooling houses in the United States, but the energy crisis was heating up. Lawmakers had to pass laws to reduce energy consumption and created energy efficiency standards for air conditioners.

Sure, standards have changed, keeping air conditioners more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. And yes, there have been advancements in equipment over the years, but we are still keeping cool thanks to inventors and forward thinkers centuries ago.

Need to stay cool when it’s hot, just remember- It’s Gotta be Godby!

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