The History of Air Conditioning

We often take ubiquitous air conditioning for granted these days. Air conditioning in Austin is as common as air itself. We expect it without thinking about when we enter pretty much any building and the idea of living without it seems unfathomable, especially to those of us in Austin. Air conditioning is a staple of modern comfort, but have you ever wondered at how we got here from a world without air conditioning?

There was a time before air conditioning, as dark as that sounds. In today’s article, I’ll go over the history of air conditioning. It’s a rich history, dating back to Egypt, at least, as far as records can tell. As humanities technology marches forward in progress, so does the technology developed to cool our homes. As long as there have been people living in hot places, people have made attempts to beat nature and control their own environments. The path to modern air conditioning starts with ice and evaporation.

Evaporative Cooling and Ice Storage

One of the earliest recorded attempts by people to cool their homes comes from ancient Egypt. They would hang reeds in the windows. These reeds were moistened with a slow stream of water. The evaporation of the water-cooled the air as it blew through the window into the house. This also happened to make the air more humid, which would be a terrible idea for someone in a humid environment like Austin but was actually beneficial in a dry desert environment like Egypt.

There are a number of other recorded early and primitive residential cooling methods. Some of these include in medieval Persia, where they used cisterns and wind towers to cool buildings during the hot season. Also, the 2nd-century Chinese inventor Ding Huan of the Han Dynasty invented a rotary fan for air conditioning, with seven wheels 10 feet in diameter and manually powered by his prisoners. In 747, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty had the Cool Hall built in the imperial palace, which is described as having water-powered fan wheels for air conditioning as well as rising jet streams of water from fountains. During the subsequent Song Dynasty, some written sources mention the air conditioning rotary fan as even more widely used.

In the 17th century, making use of the power of evaporation became increasingly more common. As people knew as early as the ancient Egyptians, evaporating liquid has a cooling effect. In 1758, Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley of Cambridge Univesrity discovered that the evaporation of alcohol and other volatile liquids can evaporate even quicker, this in turn can be used to freeze water.

In 1840, John Gorrie, a physican and inventor in Florida, used ice to try and cool down hospitals in Florida. This quickly showed itself to be fairly impractical and costly. Ice had to shipped in to Florida from the frozen lakes and rivers of the northern United States. There is a long history of people trying to save and store ice from the colder season for use during the hotter seasons. This is met with varying amounts of success. People needed a better way.

Early Artificial Cooling

Enter compressor technology. John Gorrie soon realized that his quest to rid people of the evils of hot temperatures would require more sophisticated cooling methods. He began experimenting with the concept of artificial cooling. He designed a machine that created ice using a compressor powered by a horse, water, wind-driven sails or steam and was granted a patent for it in 1851. This product never made it to the mainstream under his name and production but it’s invention was an important milestone in the history of air conditioning.

There was another name in this early stage of artificial cooling, James Harrison. His mechanical ice-making machine started up the same year that Gorrie had his compressor system patented, 1851. He patented his ether vapor compressor machine in 1855. This novel system used a compressor to force the refrigeration gas to pass through a condenser, where it cooled down and liquefied. The liquefied gas then circulated through the refrigeration coils and vaporized again, cooling down the surrounding system. The machine employed a flywheel and produced 3,000 kilograms of ice per day.

At this stage in air condition history, people are realizing that ice is too fleeting to make use of it efficiently just as it comes naturally. It needs to be produced and controlled to be of significant use. So these ice-making machines were invented and implemented. This still left much to be desired though. Artificial cooling via ice production never really became widespread as it was never quite efficient or economically viable for the average household to make use of. So the idea of air conditioning went stagnant for a while. This all changed in 1902 with the man Willis Carrier.

Electromechanical Cooling

Willis Carrier was from Buffalo, New York, and in 1902 he invented the world’s first electrical air conditioning unit. He was working for the Buffalo Forge Company and was tasked with the tricky job of solving their humidity problem, which was causing magazines to wrinkle undesirably. After many experiments, he invented a machine that could do precisely that, control humidity. He called it an Aparatus for Treating Air. It could humidify by heating water of dehumidify by cooling water all using coils. As he continued testing and refining his technology, he also devised and patented an automatic control system for regulating the humidity and temperature of air in textile mills. The machine worked by sending air through cool coils. The air was thereby cooled which reduced the amount of moisture in it. Carrier soon left the Buffalo Forge Company as he realized the implementations of humidity and temperature control could be wide ranging and profitable.

In 1906, Stuart Cramer explored ways of adding moisture to the air in a textile mill in North Carolina. This is when he coined the very term “air conditioning.” By combining moisture with ventilation, the humidity in the textile mill could be precisely controlled which was extremely beneficial to the process of textile production. The first private home with air conditioning was built in 1914 by David DuBose. He invented a system of ductwork that was hid behind Georgian-style intricate moldings in the walls and ceilings of the home. This is believed to be the first house equipped for central air conditioning. Strangely enough, this air conditioning system, though important because of its precedent, may never have been used, as no one ever lived in the home.

Willis Carrier continued to be a force of invention in the realm of controlled air throughout the early 20th century. He adopted the term coined by Stuart Cramer to use in the name of his own company. In 1933, the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America developed an air conditioner using a belt-driven condensing unit and associated blower, mechanical controls, and evaporator coil, and this device became the model in the growing U.S. marketplace for air-cooling systems.

Refrigerant and Modern Cooling

The invention of refrigerant is an important part of the history of air conditioning. The first air conditioners and refrigerators employed toxic or flammable gases, such as ammonia, methyl chloride, or propane, that could result in fatal accidents when they leaked. Thomas Midgley, Jr. created the first non-flammable, non-toxic chlorofluorocarbon gas, Freon, in 1928. This is otherwise known as refrigerant.

By the late 1960s, new homes with air conditioning became fairly standard. Finally, modern air conditioning had become a ubiquitous part of life in America. Henry Galson developed the first window air conditioning unit that became widely adopted. Window units before this one were expensive and as such never really took off. Galson’s unit had sold 47,000 units by 1947, making it an easy way for people to get air conditioning in their homes without extensive upgrades to the house.

It’s around the 1970s that window units get outpaced by central air conditioning. By this point, most homes are built with the necessary ductwork and space for a home central air conditioning system. These systems worked in much the same way as they do today. This is the advent of modern air cooling with the coils, vents, fans, and indoor and outdoor units that we’re familiar with today. Air gets drawn, passed over coils, and blasted through a home's ventilation system.

Freon is phased out of use starting in 1994 as concerns with its effect on the environment deepen. Freon was shown to have unfavorable effects on the ozone layer in the atmosphere. Modern refrigerants have been developed to be more environmentally safe than many of the early chlorofluorocarbon-based refrigerants used in the early- and mid-twentieth century. The first of these was developed by Carrier under the name Puron.

Air Conditioning History and AC Repair in Austin

Air conditioning has a long a rich history, spanning centuries, even millennia. From the ancient Egyptians using evaporation to the modern-day use of environmentally friendly refrigerant through systems of coils and vents, air conditioning has come a long way. We’re more advanced than ever now, but there’s still room for improvement and future development of even great home air treating technology. Increases in efficiency, comfort, and customization will continue to flourish and technology progresses.

Even still, with all these advancements and increasingly sophisticated technologies, nothing is perfect. Sometimes you’ll need air conditioning repair in Austin. AC Express is an Austin AC repair company based in the Austin area. Our service area includes everywhere from Leander and Georgetown to Kyle and Manor. If your Austin air conditioning is giving you any trouble, give us a call and we’ll have your system back in tip-top shape in no time. Call today!