History of The Air Conditioner Timeline

ByAllen Czermak


What do fire escapes, rooftops, and movie theaters have in common?

If you guessed that these venues were used as old fashioned cooling systems, you are 100% right. Living in the New York City summer before the invention and popularity of air conditioning, was quite an oppressive experience. Opening windows did little to alleviate the heat, especially in apartment and tenement buildings. One hot day, I was once a member of a tour group of old tenement apartments on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I almost fainted from the heat in the brief time that I was listening to the tour guide explain what living was like in the tenements in the early part of the twentieth century. I am now able to understand just how oppressive the heat was. Apartment dwellers would take their sleeping paraphernalia and step out of their window to the fire escape (which was a requirement in buildings before the fire safety laws were modified). Yes, it was hot out there as well, but you could sometimes catch a short breeze in the evening because of the open space.

The old song “Up on the Roof,” The Drifters (1962), where the air is fresh and sweet, talks about the peace and serenity that city dwellers found on the rooftops of their buildings. The roof of the buildings was another place where the city dwellers found a bit of a breeze in the sweltering summer.

When movie theaters were introduced, there was a heat problem in the summer. Avid movie goers would complain about the dark, small, enclosed space with the stale smell of sweat. Who would want to sit in the heat of a theater with a bunch of other sweating fans? In 1922, in order to attract more middle- and upper-class viewers, the first well -designed cooling system for theaters was introduced at the Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles. The system was installed by the Carrier Engineering Corporation. This new mechanism pumped cool air through high vents to control humidity throughout the building. That same year, the Rivoli Theater in New York, introduced a new system that used a centrifugal cooler, which had fewer moving parts. This groundbreaking system was more reliable and more cost effective than its previous counterpart. The new machine lowered the expenses of large-scale air conditioners and expanded air conditioner use throughout the United States.

There were other ways of attempting to cool the air of the summer heat hundreds of years before Will Carrier came on the scene. In the third century, the Roman Emperor Elagabus, commanded one-thousand of his slaves to climb the mountains and gather snow for his gardens. The servants were then ordered to cut large palm leaves and wave them creating a false wind to cool the lucky few. Another earlier method of cooling the air was experimented in India. Wet grass mats were hung over the windows to cool the incoming air by evaporation.

Dr. John Gorrie of Florida thought of the idea first of cooling cities to help alleviate diseases like malaria by shipping ice from frozen lakes and streams from the northern United States to Florida. His antiquated system used a compressor that was powered by a small steam engine. He was granted his patent in 1851 and called his invention, an “ice machine”. Unfortunately, his work came to a halt when his chief financial backer passed away. People would not believe that his system worked. The timing was not right, and Dr. Gorrie died penniless. Dr. Gorrie’s valiant attempt to help sick people was altruistically motivated. However, the most successful entrepreneur in the air conditioning business, Willis Carrier was not driven to help keep humans cool, but rather to prevent the wrinkling of magazine pages.

Willis Carrier was a twenty-five-year-old junior engineer working for The Buffalo Forge Company. He was sent to Brooklyn, New York, to solve the “pressing” problem of too much humidity that was causing magazine pages at The Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, to wrinkle. The blistering temperatures of the summer would make the paper used for publication of a humor magazine called, Judge, soak up so much moisture that it would expand, causing the colors used in the printing operation not to line up right. Also, the pages would not dry properly as well causing the magazine to have major deadline issues and overturning its subscription schedule.

The New York Stock Exchange followed suit by installing their air conditioning system the same year. However, while Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Co. utilized their new system to keep out any wrinkles to their deadline, the stock exchange was the first building to be air-conditioned solely for the comfort of its occupants. By 1925, Madison Square Garden in Manhattan had the new cooling system installed as well.

What took Carrier’s invention so long to catch on to the middle-class people? Didn’t he exhibit his invention at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York? Carrier named his exhibit at the fair, The Igloo. This machine gave visitors a peek into a future with air conditioning. Practically speaking, people were not ready to pay the price of the air conditioner at the time.

I remember, the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The fair is noted as a showcase of mid-20th-century American technology. More than 51 million people attended the fair, including myself. This fair remains a hallmark for many American Baby Boomers, who visited the optimistic fair as children before the turbulent years of the Vietnam War and many other cultural changes. What comes to my memory first, is the see and speak phone. As children, we were amazed that you could see the person you are speaking to, live. Nevertheless, it is only recently that Skype, Facetime, Facebook, and Google are being utilized. It seems remarkable, that something we take for granted took so many years to gain popularity with most folks. Remember, it did you no good if you had one of those, unless the people you called had it as well. Even though this reciprocity was not the case in air conditioning, it too, took many years to catch on.

Today, about 87% of all the households in the United States have air-conditioning according to the Energy Information Administration. But It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century (1950’s) that the air conditioner became a major structure of American households. After emerging from the shadow of World War II, the American people were ready to welcome a new image of prosperity called the American dream.

How did Will Carrier come up with his brilliant idea?

Well, this is what they say happened. On a foggy day, Will was walking through a Pittsburgh railway station. The fog sparked the idea in his head of drying the air by producing artificial fog. His original plan was to force air across pipes that were filled with cool water that was drawn from a well located between two buildings. Carrier’s air conditioning system was installed in Brooklyn in 1902, saving the Judge Magazine and perpetuating the birth of the modern air conditioner. Carrier later added a refrigeration machine called, “The Chiller” in order to speed up the cooling process. Carrier was granted his patent on January 2, 1906, and to this day his company, “Carrier Engineering Corporation” is a world leader in both residential and commercial cooling and refrigeration systems.

If you travel through Buffalo today, you will no doubt pass by Carrier Circle, as your GPS system or Waze will guide you to your chosen motel or hotel. Carrier’s invention succeeded in creating the following concept that is true today: lowering temperatures, humidity, air circulation, and ventilation while cleaning the air in your home.

In 1932, the patent for the first window air conditioner was developed by H.H. Schutz and J.Q. Sherman. Unfortunately, it did not become that popular, not because it wasn’t efficient but more because it was too costly for the average American. A more compact and less expensive model of the window air conditioner was developed by engineer Henry Galson, By the year 1947, 43,000, of these units were sold and for the first-time homeowners could afford to buy them.

Now that most of the population has air conditioning what are the latest findings?

Well, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that air conditioners have become much more energy effective. They shut off automatically when reaching a certain temperature. The Energy Department’s Emerging Technologies Program (within the Building Technologies Office) is supporting research to make air conditioning even more efficient and viable. Non-vapor compression technology (which doesn’t use HFC’s that can harm the environment), is introducing a new age of cooling. Also, today’s air conditioners use approximately fifty percent less energy that the air conditioners of the 1990’s.

The bad news is that doctors and scientists have come to realize that there is danger lurking in air conditioners, especially the industrial type. Allergic reactions and flu-type illnesses are being spread through ducts that are not cleaned properly. Besides for dust and dirt lining the ducts, creating system inefficiency, airborne disease can find a safe haven there, and get blown back into the home. Hopefully, soon, our inventors will be able to combine the greatness of the great outdoors with the cooling efficiency of the air conditioners of the future.

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