Who Invented the AC Unit?

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Air conditioning, once considered a luxury afforded only by the wealthy, has in modern times become more commonplace, and indeed part of everyday life.

In countries where extreme heat, humidity or pollution pose a threat to life, it is considered a necessity.

Here in the UK, we have recently seen soaring summer temperatures resulting in a dramatic increase in demand. During the pandemic, the government requested that where possible we should work from home, further highlighting the need for domestic AC.

With scientific and technological advancements (and the brain power of some very clever individuals), we are now able to control surrounding temperature at the touch of a button and air conditioning has become accessible to all.

It is clear that the invention of the modern-day air conditioner is not as the result of a single invention, but the result a series of exciting discoveries along the way, here we take a closer look into its history and attempt to answer some of the most asked questions about this important discovery…….

Why was air conditioning invented and when?

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Delving back into history we can see that evaporative cooling techniques have been used for many years. Evaporative cooling is the conversion of liquid water into vapour using the thermal energy in the air.

It is well documented that centuries ago the Ancient Egyptians used this method to reduce the temperature inside their buildings. Sodden cloths or reeds were hung in doorways and windows, and as the warm air passed through them the liquid would evaporate. This process reduced the temperature of the surrounding air.

Clay pots (qullah) filled with water were also strategically placed in rooms. The intense heat would cause the water to evaporate and produce a cooling effect. If you were lucky enough to be rich, you could employ a slave to waft the cool air in your direction!

Other examples of where evaporative cooling techniques have been utilised thoughout history, and indeed are still being used today are mashrabiya (specially designed lattice windows) and windcatchers (a chimney like structure).

This is a very simple, cheap, and relatively effective technique, but is very dependent on climate conditions and location. Although evaporative cooling systems differ from modern day AC systems it was from here we could perhaps consider the concept of the air conditioner was born.

Who invented air conditioning as we know it today?

Over the years there had been many attempts to find other viable solutions to cool and control temperature. The need for cooling was not a problem that was just going to go away and there was increasing demand for temperature control on a larger more efficient scale.

Of course, there were many contributors to the development of air conditioning, for example we have discussed how the Egyptians utilised evaporative cooling, however it appears that the USA led the way in modern cooling techniques and four individuals in particular seemed to be held in high esteem, when it came to solving the problem of heat.

John Gorrie

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In 1842 Dr John Gorrie was a resident physician at two hospitals in Florida. Specialising in the care and treatment of tropical diseases, his research led him to believe that temperature paid a key role in the treatment and prevention of certain diseases. 

He devised a crude system to keep the hospital cool. By suspending basins from the ceilings filled with blocks of ice he was able to cool the sick rooms, helping to reduce fever. This was a simple enough solution, but it caused a big problem, as in order to maintain cool temperatures in the hospitals, the ice needed to be shipped in large quantities from a long distance away.

So convinced of his hypothesis that cool temperatures were key to disease control and prevention, John Gorrie decided to give up his medical career to concentrate on inventing other artificial cooling techniques.

This he did to a degree of success as in 1851 he was granted patent for the invention of a new and useful Machine for the Artificial Production of Ice and General Refrigeratory Purpose.

Unfortunately following the death of his financial partner Gorrie failed to get his invention off the ground and he sadly died alone and penniless.

Although Gorrie was not widely hailed as ‘the’ inventor of the air conditioner, without a doubt his invention played a key part in its development.

Willis Carrier

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In 1901 a bright young engineer, Willis Carrier, graduated from Cornell University with a Master of Engineering degree.

He quickly secured a position at the Buffalo Forge Company, and the following year was given the task of solving a humidity problem for a publishing company which was causing poor print quality of their magazines.

Carrier conducted various experiments and eventually came up with an innovative system to control the humidity. His invention the “Apparatus for Treating Air” was the birth of modern-day AC, and a patent was secured.

Realising its potential to be something ‘big’ Carrier continued to experiment and refine his invention and soon devised and patented an automatic control system for regulating humidity and temperature that could benefit many industries.

He eventually broke off from Buffalo Forge, forming the phenomenally successful Carrier Engineering Corporation with six other engineers.

Despite these exciting advancements in design and efficiency these AC systems were huge, bulky pieces of equipment and not very practical, especially for domestic use, so it was back to the drawing board once again….

HH Schultz and JQ Sherman 

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In 1931, H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman developed and patented an air conditioner designed to sit on a window ledge. Unfortunately, the units were very expensive, and during a time of economic and political crisis, it was a luxury out of reach for most.

However, Schultz and Sherman’s innovative invention set a precedent for future window air conditioners. New patents soon sprang up for smaller, compact and less inexpensive versions.

During the 1950’s post war economic boom domestic AC units became very desirable. In the years that followed their popularity exploded, it is reported that across the United States of America over a million units were sold in 1953.

Compared to the USA, the UK’s demand for domestic cooling has had a slow start. However, with recent spikes in summer temperatures, a growing “working from home” culture and the latest trends in building design, there has been considerable growth in this market.

What about the future of AC?

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This article would simply be too long if we touched on every invention and development throughout the history of the air conditioner, so here we have mentioned some of the ‘key players’ whose innovative ideas have contributed to the air conditioner as we know it today.

Since its humble beginnings there have been many advancements in the design and technology of the air conditioner.

From single mini split systems to highly complex VRF systems, efficient and affordable heating and cooling can now be enjoyed at the touch of a button in a variety of domestic and commercial settings.

However, the story does not end there…..

Demand is on the increase, and the customer is ever changing in its requirements. Whether the hot topic is environmental impact, energy efficiency, aesthetics or smart technology ….. the industry continues to evolve and adapt to deliver solutions.

Evergreen Air Conditioning Limited provide AC services to suit all budgets and applications. For expert advice on installation, maintenance, or emergency repair of an AC system in your home or workplace, please contact our specialist team. 

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