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History of Air Conditioning

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Posted May 15, 2018
Air conditioning units outside a Houston home

We take air conditioning for granted, expecting the stores we shop in, the places we work, and the homes we live in to bring relief in the form of cool, comfortable air when temperatures outside are high. However, not that long-ago air conditioning was a luxury – and not long before that it didn’t really exist at all, with only a few notable exceptions.

The beginning of air conditioning

How far back do we have to go to find humankind’s efforts to control the environment? Not the ‘cave man’ certainly, because everyone knows that caves remain steady at cool temperatures of 49 to 52 degrees F – that is, except the caves in the Lone Star State. Naturally, the caves in Texas are reputed to have higher temperatures (around 70 degrees F), but then everything is bigger in Texas!

Ancient Rome gets the honor of being the first civilization to try conditioning the air. Wealthy citizens would utilize that still-amazing aqueduct system to circulate cool water through the walls of their homes. And even less cost-effective, one Roman emperor had ice and snow shipped down from the north via donkeys to keep a large snow pile in his garden.

The fan base

Such luxuries (along with the Roman Empire itself) disappeared during the Dark Ages and things went back a few steps.

However, over in the Far East, there was a whirring noise – from fans. Hand fans were being used in China as early as 3,000 years ago, and by the 2nd century A.D. a Chinese inventor built the first room-size rotary fan, although it was still hand-powered.

Modern era of cooling technology

There was a resurgence of interest in cooling technology in the 19th century. In 1881 American engineers came up with a contraption which blew air through cotton sheets doused in ice water, but the big breakthrough came with electricity, with Nikola Tesla’s development of alternating currents motors, the oscillating electric fan became a welcome alternative to hand fans.

In 1902 a young engineer named Willis Carrier was looking for a way to control the humidity in the printing plant where he worked by mechanically sending air through water-cooled coils and ended up inventing what we consider the first modern air-conditioning system. Twenty years later he invented the centrifugal chiller, adding a central compressor to reduce the unit’s size.

This new technology was introduced to the public in 1925, debuting at the Rivoli Theater in Times Square, New York.

Fun fact: People would pile into air-conditioned movie theaters as the only cool place on hot summer days, and this gave rise to the ‘summer blockbuster’.

By the 1930s, department stores, rail cars, and business offices joined the ranks of cool places.

Today’s home air conditioning

Residential air conditioning was slower to develop, because the cooling systems were too large and expensive for use in individual homes. In 1929 Frigidaire introduced a room cooler that utilized refrigeration technology, but it was heavy and complex. Around the same time General Motors produced units that used non-flammable refrigerating fluids – and while these were safer to use, they were eventually linked to ozone depletion.

Today, there are new refrigerants and technologies being used that are less harmful to the planet thanks to research by the Energy Department’s Building Technologies Office.

As late as 1965 it’s estimated that only 10 percent of homes in the U.S. had home air conditioning. Now, due to advances in technology and more general prosperity, the Energy Information Administration reports that nearly 100 million American households (or 87 percent) enjoy air conditioning at home.

Options for home cooling are many and varied. Contact a trusted AC company to find out more about the best options for your home, climate, and personal comfort level.


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