The history of A/C: From healthcare to Hollywood to the White House

An MTB Mechanical Heating & Air Conditioning technician installing an air conditioning unit on the exterior of a home

It’s easy to take it for granted now, but air conditioning is a relatively modern invention. It has become one of the century’s most important and life-changing innovations. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration , nearly 90% of all homes in the U.S. utilize some form of A/C. How did it become so widespread? Your friends at MTB Mechanical share the history and the highlights along the way.

1800s: Doctor of innovation

Dr. John Gorrie is credited with the first attempts at the development of air conditioning. As a doctor living in hot and humid Florida, he thought indoor cooling could help prevent the spread of disease and provide a better hospital experience for patients.

He started with natural cooling, finding frozen water sources in the northern U.S., and shipping the ice south to Florida. Then he moved to obtaining a patent in 1851 for an artificial cooling machine, including a horse-powered compressor, water and wind-driven sails. Unfortunately, Dr. Gorrie’s machine turned out to be too complex and costly to make it to the marketplace.

Early 20th century: Movie theaters, the World’s Fair and the White House

Dr. Gorrie’s innovations laid the groundwork for the future of air conditioning. Willis Haviland Carrier – an engineer who earned the title of “the father of the air conditioner” – began to experiment with reducing indoor humidity at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company, a printing plant in Brooklyn, NY, to prevent magazine pages from wrinkling. Carrier’s invention removed moisture from the room, while also using coils filled with cold water to distribute cool air.

In 1904, the American public experienced the wonders of indoor cooling for the first time at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Mechanical refrigeration was used in the Missouri State Building to pump 35,000 cubic feet of air per minute to keep the building and its occupants cool.

Commercial air conditioning grew widespread thanks to Hollywood. Moviegoing became a national craze in the 1920s, and audiences were lured with promises of cool indoor temperatures during the summer months. This required some trial and error, however. At first, systems distributed cold air via bottom floor vents. As a result, the lower theater levels were freezing, while the upper levels were hot and muggy. A major improvement arrived when Carrier’s company, the Carrier Engineering Corporation, installed a new cooling system in the Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles, CA. Cool air was circulated out of the upper-level vents to better control the temperature and humidity.

It was time to move from commercial applications to putting an air conditioning system into a house – the White House, in fact. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover requested a cooling system for the presidential residence, and Carrier installed a central air conditioning system at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

That same year, the manufacturer Frigidaire developed a split-system room cooler in the shape of a radio cabinet. While it was small enough for homes, it was also extremely heavy and too expensive for most consumers. Carrier ended up taking the lead in the emerging centralized air marketplace. The earliest mass-produced air conditioner, introduced in 1933, featured a belt-driven condensing unit, an associated blower, mechanical controls and an evaporator coil. More compact window units also hit the market, including a popular model developed by engineer Henry Galson in the late 1940s.

Post-war years: Moving south

Until the 1950s, air conditioning was still a luxury item available only to the wealthiest homeowners. Refinements in manufacturing brought down the cost, and soon more and more homes were equipped with central air. This actually changed population patterns in the U.S., as people began moving to hot-weather states, knowing that they would have reprieve from the heat – at least inside their homes.

This innovation was so significant that in a report presented in 2000, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers voted air conditioning/refrigeration as one of the top 10 mechanical engineering achievements of the 20th century.

Present day

Modern-day air conditioners consume about half as much energy as air conditioners built in 1990. While they continue to utilize some of the basic fundamentals as Carrier’s invention from 1933, today’s A/C units include advanced technology in areas such as vapor compression, electronic sensors, diagnostics, controls, materials and energy efficiency.

So now it’s easy to take air conditioning for granted – until it’s not working. At MTB, we focus on the Science of Comfort, and we’ve spent decades helping families in the Charlotte area remain comfortable in their homes, all year long. If you ever have a problem with your cooling system, or any heating and cooling issue, you can always reach out to the experts. Schedule an appointment online or call us today.

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