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The History of the Air Conditioner (AC) Unit

Cooling methods date back to as early as biblical days when “the coolness of snow in the heat of
the harvest” was made mention in the Bible. Other historical accounts of this need for comforting
climates include the Roman emperor Varius Avitus ordering that mountain snow be brought and
formed in heaps in his garden as a means of cooling the natural breeze. Though other mentions of
cooling strategies are scattered throughout history, the field of comfort cooling didn’t achieve
much until the 1800s.

Shortly after the 18th century, Frederic Tudor ordered a shipload of ice to be sent to Martinique
(West Indies) to aid in the relief of the Yellow Fever epidemic thus the ice trade began in the U.S.
In 1901 reports stated that even before 1825, larger American cities were already harboring stores
of ice for medical purposes though these applications involved directly applying ice to the body
(Nagengast 1999). When it came to residential use, a Virginia inventor James Barron created and
patented his mechanically powered punkah in the 1830’s as a machine for fanning dining rooms,
bed chambers, halls etc. because at the time, moving the air was better than nothing (Basile 2014).
Around 1833, Dr. John Gorrie began treating patients with yellow fever and malaria. He
understood that fever was associated with high body temperatures and thus lowering body
temperatures would cure the patients of fever. He hung ice buckets from the ceiling and allowed
for air to pass over them creating cooler air which descended on his patients and surely this lowered
their body temperatures. He went as far as to use a steam engine to create cold air by drawing in
and compressing air at room temperature and forcing it through a labyrinth of pipe. As it escaped
the pipe it became cool and was routed through a tank of brine which became chilled below
freezing temperature consequentially lowering the temperature of the room (Bastile 2014). In
1864, George Knight proposed a hospital cooling system which featured a ventilating system with
an air washer to clean and cool the air. The water for the air washer would be passed through a
cooling coil immersed in melting ice. The air from the environment would then be forced through
the cold-water spray by a fan which then became distributed via perforated outlets. Knight went
on to say that “the device is intended especially for optional and discretionary use in the heat of
summer.” The very next year (1875), Nathaniel Shaler was granted a US patent for an improved
cooling apparatus. This patent described a heat exchanger made with “ice holders” resting in a
tortuous passage through which the outside air is blown. He even went as far as to suggest that a
desiccant be placed in the air stream to dry it. Large building heating and ventilation systems along
with refrigeration began to be commercialized after 1870. Enterprises became organized with the
sole purpose of creating and manufacturing building infrastructure systems. A demand for central
systems rose in the sense of providing refrigeration for commercial purposes such as making ice,
cold storage and for use by breweries. There was however, little demand for comfort cooling and
when added to the high cost of mechanical refrigeration and ice at the time, comfort cooling was
scarce. By 1880, various systems had been engineered for comfort cooling on a large scale. One
of which consisted of a theatre in Madison Square that used approximately 4 tons of ice to cool
patrons at evening summer performances. Between 1880 and the early 1890’s, a few ice type
systems had been designed, one of which was used by U.S President James Garfield to add relief
as he laid dying from an assassin’s bullet during summer of 1881. The Naval engineers ran air
through dozens of cotton screens which was drenched in the meltings of a salt ice mixture
contained in a tank above. The cooled air was then channeled into the president’s bedroom which
resulted in a temperature drop of approximately -11 ºC.

The use of ice began to be questioned about its ability to provide effective cooling since uniformly
good results weren’t always achieved by these ice based cooling systems. Through the study and
understanding of the relationship between humidity and temperature and the publication of
German Professor Herma Rietschel’s Guide to Calculation and Design of Ventilating and Heating
installations, the engineering of comfort cooling evolved. Engineers now had the science twisted
and fit into an engineering perspective (Nagengast 1999). In 1902, Wills Carrier, a 25-year-old
engineer designed the first modern air-conditioning system. It was designed to send air through
water cooled coils but was not made for human comfort, instead it was designed for humidity
control in the printing plant he was employed by. He continued his journey by inventing the
centrifugal chiller which introduced a central compressor, reducing the unit’s size. It became a
summer blockbuster after being introduced to the public in 1925 (Oremus 2013). In 1929, Frigidare
introduced a split-system room cooler to the marketplace which was shaped like a radio cabinet
and small enough for home use. This system was however costly and heavy, it also depended on a
separate remote-controlled condensing unit. Frank Faust improved this design developing a self-
contained room cooler which General Electric’s produced 32 similar prototypes of between 1930
and 1931. As the years passed, different coolants were synthesized, improving the safety of the air
conditioners however, the chloroflurocarbon coolants proved to be linked to ozone depletion and
the hydroflorocarbons were linked to climate change. New research by the Energy Department’s
Building Technologies Office and Oak Ridge National Laboratory gave way to new refrigerants
and technologies that bring less harm to the planet.

H.H Schultz and J.Q. Sherman paved the way for smaller home cooling systems after filing a
patent for an air conditioning unit that could be placed on a window ledge. The units didn’t make
blockbuster sales though as they were very expensive. Engineer Henry Galson developed a smaller
more inexpensive version of Sherman and Schultz’s system and was set for production lines by
several manufacturers. Approximately 43’000 of these systems were sold by 1947 and
homeowners gained the opportunity to enjoy affordable air conditioning.

The late 1960’s showed a fueling growth in hot-weather states such as Florida and Arizona cooling
nearly 100 million American homes. As the use of AC units rose in the 1970’s the energy crisis
hit. Due to the high energy demands that were now present, laws were passed to suppress energy
consumption. The Energy Department has issued conservation standards since 1992 for
manufacturers of residential heat pumps and central air conditioners. The standard passed in ’06
and is anticipated to save approximately $70 billion in energy bills between 2006 and 2035 and
circumvent over 369 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The air conditions available
today use about 50% less energy than those present in 1990 (Lester 2015).

Basile, Salvatore. 2014. "Ice, Air and Crowd Poison ." In Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed
Everything, by Salvatore Basile, 22. New York: Fordham University Press.
Bastile, Salvatore. 2014. "Ice, Air and Crowd Poison." In Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed
Everything, by Salvatore Bastile, 23. New York: Fordham University Press.
Lester, Paul. 2015. History of Air Conditioning . July 20. Accessed March 17, 2018.
Nagengast, Bernard. 1999. A History of Comfort Cooling Using Ice . February . Accessed March
17, 2018.
Oremus, Will. 2013. A History of Air Conditioner. July 15. Accessed March 17, 2018.