The History of Air Conditioning

Ahhhhh, air conditioning: It’s a modern convenience that most of us enjoy in our homes and workplaces. It’s hard to imagine a time when AC wasn’t the norm in America, but the technology is a relatively new development in the broad sweep of history.

You might not think much about the origin of air conditioning until your AC goes out and you’re thinking: “I need AC repair near me.” But it’s interesting to learn a little about the history of air conditioning and why professional AC  service matters, since it’s a comfort that most of us rely upon during the hot summer months.

Early cooling methods

We can thank the ancient Romans for their initial contributions to indoor cooling. Via an intricate aqueduct system, wealthy families during the Roman Empire circulated cool water through their homes, a primitive form of air conditioning. Obviously, this system wasn’t widely available, and then the prospects for efficient indoor cooling subsequently dimmed during the Dark Ages.

A Roman aqueduct that still stands today in Segovia, Spain. Image credit: Bernard Gagnon

The common fan became the most popular choice for cooling in Asia, the Middle East and the West during the following centuries, with architecture also playing a role in keeping indoor temperatures bearable — for example, by facing building windows away from the sun.

In the 1800s, inventors returned to the problem of cooling in America. In the 1840s and 50s, a Florida physician named Dr. John Gorrie experimented with methods for cooling hospital rooms involving ice and compressors. While Gorrie never had the financial backing to fully develop and market his ideas, they became a significant milestone in the history of air conditioning. 

Schematic drawing used in patent application for Dr. John Gorrie’s ice machine

A similar historical episode involved President James Garfield, who lay on his deathbed in sweltering Washington, D.C., in 1881. A rudimentary device that blew air through sheets dampened with ice water cooled Garfield as he lay dying. The concept wasn’t efficient enough for widespread adoption — it required LOTS of ice — but it had a kernel of the idea of today’s AC systems.

Make sure you have the right AC system.

Who invented modern air conditioning?

The first air-conditioning system resembling those we know in the 21st century was invented in 1902 by Willis Carrier to reduce humidity in the New York printing plant at which he worked. In 1925, he created a “centrifugal chiller,” which reduced the size of the system by use of a central compressor. It debuted in a New York movie theater on Memorial Day of the same year, launching the American tradition of escaping sweltering summers in the cool of the cinema and consequently the summer blockbuster.

Willis Carrier in 1915

Subsequently, AC systems began to appear in offices, stores and train cars. By the 1950s, the company founded by Carrier — the Carrier Corporation, based in Farmington, Conn. — began offering ACs to the residential market.

Still, adoption was somewhat slow at first. The Carrier corporation reported that only 10 percent of homes had AC by 1965. That rose to 65 percent by 2007. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that nearly 100 million American homes enjoyed AC by 2011. 

What’s wrong with my air conditioner?

Milestones in the timeline in the history of air conditioning

The 1930s marked the debut of the individual window-ledge units that often provide AC in historic buildings not outfitted for central air even today. Late in the decade, Packard launched an air-conditioned car.

Air conditioner types explained

An air conditioning system uses a condenser, coils and a fan to cool air. Hot air gets pulled into the system, where it passes over coils that contain a refrigerant that cools and dehumidifies the air. The air then gets blown out via fans. This process might occur via a central HVAC system or a small unit.

Central air: Chances are, you have a whole-house air conditioner that circulates air through a system of ducts and registers.

Window units: First invented by H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman in 1931, the small boxed AC unit was built to rest on a window ledge and cool a single room. These are a great option for historic or other homes not outfitted with HVAC ducts to cool a single room (say, a bedroom at night) or a small enclosed area. 

Standing units: These smaller units are a portable AC and dehumidifier option, costing as little as $200 at big box home improvement stores. Make sure you get the proper power for the square footage you need to cover. The measurement BTU — or British Thermal Unit — equates to the amount of energy required to raise a pound of water at sea level by 1 degree Fahrenheit. The bigger the room, the more BTUs your unit needs.

Pro-tip: Newer ACs are significantly more energy efficient than units manufactured in years past. If your AC is only a decade old, you could still improve your efficiency by up to 40 percent by replacing it, according to the Department of Energy. Units made in the 1970s might be as much as 50 percent less efficient.

Why professional service and repair matters

Most modern AC units are rugged, but complex systems. Not only do they involve electrical connections and terminals, they also contain a chemical refrigerant in liquid or gaseous form, such as R22, R410A or R134.

A common problem requiring AC repair is an improper amount of refrigerant, which absorbs heat and cools the air running through your system. The EPA has regulations governing the purchase, handling and disposal of refrigerants, which is why it’s best to leave AC repair to knowledgeable professionals.

Bonus to leaving AC service and repair to the pros: You’ll avoid damaging your unit and nulling any warranty coverage for which you might qualify. If you want to be extra proactive, one of the best ways to keep your HVAC system running as efficiently as possible — including having filters replaced and connections and refrigerant levels checked — is to have it professionally serviced twice a year.  Schedule service once before cooling season and another before heating season.

Call now at (703) 214-5611. We offer friendly, professional AC and HVAC service to residences throughout the D.C. metro area, including Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax.

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