The History of Air Conditioning

June 27, 2012

Before the modern central air conditioner was invented, people were forced to sweat out their summers in Ohio (or in the Dust Bowl, or on the Great Plains, or in Pangea, or whatever Ohio was before it was Ohio!)  trying to beat the heat with handheld fans and shade trees – now people can enjoy the luxury of cool, comfortable homes all year round. But how did the modern air conditioning come to be and where did things all start?

The history of air conditioning can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome where water from the aqueducts was piped through the walls of homes to help cool them down. There was a long development process that got us to the modern central air conditioning we all know and love today – find out everything there is to know about the history of air conditioning!

Air Conditioning Timeline

Pre-Industrial Air Conditioning

2nd Century – The beginning of the history of air conditioning started during the Han Dynasty when a Chinese inventor by the name of Ding Huan invented a rotary fan with seven wheels that provided manually powered air conditioning.

8th Century – The Chinese Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty built a Cool Hall in the imperial palace which had water-powered fan wheels to provide cooling.

18th Century – An important landmark in the history of air conditioning is the series of experiments conducted by Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley, a professor of chemistry at Cambridge University, in 1758. They set out to explore the possibility of rapidly cooling an object by means of evaporation and found that highly volatile liquids (like alcohol and ether) could be used to lower the temperature of something below the freezing point of water. After their experiments, Franklin concluded, “From this experiment, one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.”

Mechanical Air Conditioning

19th Century – In 1820, Michael Faraday, a British scientist and inventor, discovered that compressing and liquefying ammonia and allowing it to evaporate could cool the air.

In 1842, John Gorrie, a physician in Florida, created an ice-making machine using compressor technology. He used this machine to provide cool air for his patients in his hospital in Apalachicola, Florida. Although his machine leaked and performed irregularly, Gorrie had wonderful visions of using a centralized air conditioning system to cool entire cities. He received a patent for his prototype, but was never able to complete it due to financing problems, and the idea of centralized AC faded away for 50 years – a long hiccup in the history of air conditioning.

In 1881, a bedridden President James Garfield was overcome with fever after being shot. As the summer got increasingly warm, a Navy engineer and Simon Newcomb, a Canadian-American astronomer and mathematician, rigged together an air blower over a chest with 6 tons of ice. This device was able to decrease the indoor air temperature approximately 20 degrees and consumed half a million pounds of ice in two months. This is sometimes considered the first AC unit in the history of air conditioning.

Electromechanical Air Conditioning

20th Century – In 1902, air conditioning technology really picks up again with the invention of the first electrical air conditioning system by Willis Haviland Carrier, a graduate of Cornell University, in Buffalo, New York. He began experimenting with air conditioning in order to solve a production problem in the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company. The first air conditioner he designed and built began working on July 17, 1902.

His air conditioners could not only control the temperature, but humidity as well. Carrier reversed the process of steam heating by passing air over coils filled with cold water so that the air being blown over them would be cooler and the amount of moisture in the air could be controlled. A decrease in heat and humidity helped maintain proper ink alignment and improved productivity in the workplace. The Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America was formed in order to meeting the rising demand for air conditioning in the US.

Development of Refrigerant for Air Conditioning

20th Century – In 1928, Thomas Midgley created the first non-flammable, non-toxic chlorofluorocarbon gas, Freon. Freon is what is used in different types of refrigerant, including R-11, R-12, R-22, and R-134A. This invention is one of the cornerstones of the history of air conditioning, leading the way to modern cooling as we know it.

The 1950s were an era of air conditioning – residential air conditioning boomed and many homes installed cooling units.

21st Century – Due to its environmental hazards, R-22 refrigerant started being phased out in 2010, favoring R-410A, a non-ozone-depleting refrigerant developed by Honeywell. Understanding the environmental impact of refrigerant is one of the most important landmarks in the history of air conditioning that brought us where we are today.

Today, we have complete central air conditioning systems that are highly energy efficient – in fact, the minimum SEER for AC units today is 13, nearly twice the energy efficiency of air conditioners ten years ago. Advances in AC technology are happening every day it seems, and who knows where the history of air conditioning is headed – the possibilities are endless. If you’re interested in learning more about air conditioning or you need air conditioning services in Cincinnati, contact Rick’s Heating & Cooling today!