We owe a great deal of thanks to engineer Willis H. Carrier, the inventor of crisp, cool, sacred, treasured, magnificent air-conditioning—despite the fact that he wasn’t trying to do anyone a favor. This week, 110 years ago, in July of 1902, Carrier developed the building system in an effort to control humidity at the Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Co. plant in Brooklyn, N.Y., so that paper dimensions would remain constant during the printing process.
Once workers felt the chill during the hot months, though, there was no going back. Carrier’s “dew point control” unit, which cooled air enough so that it reaches saturation and loses moisture, was first installed for people at Graumann’s Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles in 1922. In the 1920s, a commercial building in San Antonio, Texas, installed the first commercial air-conditioning system. Other early adopters included candy-making companies and textile mills. Air-conditioning progressed with the development in the 1930s of low-toxic and relatively safe refrigerant gases that the Frigidaire, General Motors, and DuPont companies branded Freons (more familiar today as chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, a compound many scientists say is linked to ozone depletion). By the mid-30s, railcar trains were using A/C to cool off passengers. In the 1950s, the building system was finally packaged for individuals in the form of compact units.
Carrier’s invention came after others had experimented with their own air-cooling systems. John Gorrie, a doctor from Florida, worked on a mechanical cooling system in the 1830s by blowing air over buckets of ice hanging from the ceiling at a U.S. Marine hospital. (A jury-rigged version of this system is sometimes used today, even by a fellow ARCHITECT staffer here—whenever traditional air-conditioning systems are out of order.) Gorrie intended to lower the body temperatures of those suffering from malaria and yellow fever; he went on to patent the first ice-making machine. President James A. Garfield even got in the game: In 1881, he used fans and 436 pounds of ice to cool his bedroom in the White House.
But it was Carrier’s eponymous system and company that went on to chill the ice for ice hockey at Madison Square Garden, cool the inside of Chicago’s Sears Tower, and make Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest comfortable. And similar systems now cool off your bedroom and my hatchback. Carrier’s system is now the primary comfort-inducing building system used the world over, producing what the Carrier company once dubbed “manufactured weather.” (Today, air-conditioning units pass air over evaporator coils filled with refrigerant, which evaporates and absorbs the heat from the air; the moisture then condenses on fins over the coils, and drains while a blower pushes the cool air into the room.)
This refreshing gift does have its unintended consequences, though. Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (The New Press; 2010), recognizes that air conditioning does what Carrier meant for it to do—preserve paper (and rare books)—as well as even save lives. But Cox says that air conditioning also has helped enable our built environment to grow in ways that have had unintended consequences. “Cities, homes, and offices have become less livable without air conditioning because we built them on the assumption of A/C, while older people have moved to places like Florida and Arizona where it is important for them to have it in summer,” he says.
We have become conditioned to air conditioning, to manufactured weather, and have abandoned the strategies that undeveloped and developing countries in hot climates still use. This is for good, certainly, or mostly: air conditioning makes for better economic productivity, and certainly helps preserve lives during heat waves. But in forgetting the ways that we used to cope with high temperatures, we may now be dependent on Carrier.