A Brief Look at the History of Air Conditioning

On a hot summer day, you often hear people exclaim, “I just don’t know how people survived before air conditioning!” While people have found different ways throughout history to keep cool, the modern air conditioning system is still a fairly recent invention and has succeeded in making even the most extreme temperatures bearable.

The most extreme case we have on record of someone trying to artificially cool himself off actually dates back to Ancient Rome. It is recorded that the Emperor Elagabalus was suffering through an intense 3rd century BC summer. In order to beat the heat, he sent 1,000 of his slaves into the mountains to bring back snow and place it in his garden. Since that time, the most common cooling system has been the use of either hand held or motorized fans.

It wasn’t until 1902 that the first preliminary air conditioning system was invented. And it wasn’t even related to cooling off people. Willis Carrier was an inventor who was looking for a way to keep the muggy air in a printing plant from wrinkling the pages of a printed magazine. Carrier worked to both cool the air and remove the moisture through the use of coils in his Apparatus for Treating Air. His ideas eventually developed into an air conditioner that was mass-produced. However the size of the early units (7 feet high, 6 feet wide, and 20 feet long), high price tag ($10,000-50,000), their noise, and their many chemicals made them impractical for everyday use.

Inventors and engineers continued to tinker with air conditioning technology. However, the cost of the units kept them out of reach of the general public. Instead they were used mostly in luxury hotels and movie theaters. It wasn’t until the 1940s and 50s that things started to change. One of the biggest marketing plans was to convince business owners that regulating the temperature of their employees led to increased productivity and efficiency. In 1947, the British scholar S.F. Markham wrote, “The greatest contribution to civilization in this century may well be air-conditioning—and America leads the way.” After the end of World War II, residential air conditioners also became extremely popular as another way to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Up to this point, air conditioning existed only as a window unit. The idea of central air conditioning was unveiled in the 1970s and quickly became the new rage, eventually making its way into millions of homes across America.

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