- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
There will never be such a law, of course, but millions of people worldwide should be required to pause and offer thanks each summer to Willis Haviland Carrier (1876–1950). After all, it was his remarkable invention of air conditioning that has greatly improved all our lives.
But Carrier’s first refrigeration unit had nothing to do with human comfort. In 1902, the 25-year-old Cornell engineering graduate designed and built a machine for blowing air across chilled coils. He called his gadget “Apparatus for Treating Air.”
He had developed it for a New York color-printing outfit that he worked for. Summertime temperatures and humidity levels inside the stuffy building often caused the paper being inked to expand or contract, thus wreaking havoc on the images being printed.
Carrier knew that evaporation could reduce heat and that cooling could draw moisture from the air. In his lab, he calculated a way to circulate chilled water through coils and then force air over the coils with a fan. By doing this, he could control both humidity and temperatures in an enclosed space.
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When people gathered together a century ago, the summertime experience often meant enduring collective human heat and pungent body odors.
Finally, relief from the energy-sapping discomfort came about in movie houses, where thankful customers could cool off for a couple of hours at a time.
In 1925, New York City’s Rivoli Theater spent $100,000 — about $3 million today — for a refrigeration system that Carrier had designed, constructed, built, and installed. Each day, relief-seeking movie patrons would flock to the Rivoli.
Other theaters followed suit, and soon department stores and office buildings were installing their own units.
Before World War II, many Americans cooled their houses with “swamp coolers,” devices that featured a fan blowing air through a dampened screen or pad.
Then, understandably, people came to desire — well, demand — refrigerated relief in their own homes, first in the form of room air conditioners, most of which sat on a window ledge.
Early models were costly but, following World War II and with mass production, the sale of reasonably priced portable units skyrocketed from 74,000 units in 1948 to over 1 million in just five years’ time.
Carrier’s invention not only changed people’s comfort levels, but it also brought about a demographic upheaval. With the advent of home refrigeration in the 1950s, places such as Arizona exploded with unbridled growth.
By the mid-1990s, Phoenix home builders were erecting 30,000 new structures annually, and the town (now America’s fifth-largest city) crept inexorably into the desert at the rate of 1 acre per hour.
Today, about 87% of all U.S. homes have refrigeration, with 65% being central-air units and 22% being window or portable coolers.
Comfort has had a price tag attached, though. The downside to Carrier’s brainchild is that it devours electricity and strains our energy supplies.
Also, over the decades, chemicals used in cooling have added to the damage done in the Earth’s ozone layer by global warming.
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.