Informational Guide

History of Air Conditioning

Learn about the invention of air conditioning with our complete history guide. See who invented and fine tuned this popular product.

by Ian Haynes

Air conditioners have not only kept us feeling comfortable over the years but placed us in a healthier climate during the hot seasons. While most of us have one or are at least familiar with them, do you know how they came to be?

If you’re looking to learn how air conditioning systems were created and who were the brilliant minds behind them, check out our guide below!

Old Air Conditioner (AC) UnitFor a long time, man has struggled to get comfort in different climates and seasons. Air conditioning happens to be one of the best inventions of man on that regard.

Air conditioning in its primitive form such as fans used in palaces has existed for a long time. They were, however, inefficient and expensive to use and acquire. This, therefore, limited their use to palaces alone and homes of wealthy individuals.

Until the 1900s, Americans also dealt with harsh weather conditions the same way common folks around the world did. Things began to change when electric fans were invented.

These replaced hand fans that wealthy people were used, and slowly even the working class found it affordable to have one installed at home.

Basic Air Conditioning

The first real air conditioner was built in 1881 for a dying president. It involved blowing air through cotton sheets soaked in cold water. This was obviously an expensive technique. By the end of the two months, the system had consumed over half a million pounds of ice.

First Efficient Air Conditioner

The first efficient air controller was built in 1902 after Nikola Tesla invented alternating current motors. This made it possible to make oscillating fans. That is when a New York-based 25-year-old engineer named Willis Carrier made the first true air- conditioner.

This device blew air thorough water-cooled coils. The unit was not invented with human comfort in mind. It was designed to make sure that a printing press was dehumidified. The process involved cooling the air to get rid of moisture from the warm moist air.

He then in 1922 followed it with a modification. He invented the centrifugal chiller to reduce the overall size of the unit. It was introduced in the Rivoli Theater, Times Square. This started the tradition of the blockbuster summer, where people would flock to air-conditioned movie theaters on hot summers.

Air Conditioner Revolution

What is Inside an Old Air Conditioner (AC) UnitCarrier’s invention set in motion the idea that air-conditioning can be applied to other living spaces and places of work.

From the 1930s, air-conditioning spread from factories to departmental stores, offices, and rail cars, this sent summer productivity to new record heights. Residential cooling, however, took a little bit longer to catch on.

Up to as late as 1965, only about 10% of the total population had air conditioning at home. According to reports by Carrier Corporation, the homeowners in the South slept on the porch.

They also put their underwear in an icebox before wearing it. This changed over the years. By the year 2007, over 87 percent of homes had air conditioning.

Overall, this marvelous invention has led to Sun Belt cities becoming bearable during summers. They have therefore attracted big populations, creating the U.S long-term population shift.

Air Conditioning in the Rest of the World Today

The Europeans have been slow to take the concept of air-conditioning. It is, however, beginning to take root. In the developing world, data is scarce on the use of air-conditioning. The statistics show that air-conditioning is available in corporate offices, hotels, and restaurants. Staying in the shade and drinking cold water is a common technique of fighting heat in third world countries.

History of Air Conditioning Systems: 7 Fun Facts

We’re not the only ones who had to deal with the scorching heat making its way into our homes! Our ancestors did too! They each had their own unique ways of beating the heat – let’s take a look because who doesn’t love some air conditioner history facts?

  • Fun Fact 1: The first geothermal-cooled homes by cave dwellers
    Why did cave dwellers end up choosing caves for their homes? Not only was it because they offered protection from the rain, but also protection from the hot, hot heat! Some even created underground burrows to make for a cooler environment.
  • Fun Fact 2: The first water-cooled air conditioners by the Egyptians
    Most of us have probably wondered about the sweltering heat the Egyptians had to endure. The Nile River supplied reeds. The Egyptians would get them wet and hang them in the windows to make the breeze coming into their homes even cooler!
  • Fun Fact 3: The first ducting systems by ancient Greeks and Romans
    We all know about the aqueducts from ancient Greece, but the Romans took that and advanced it with their hypocaust system. As the nicest villas and bathhouses featured tiled stone floors held up by various columns, they took advantage of the space underneath to move in heated air. This air would essentially heat the entire area, making it much more pleasant.
  • Fun Fact 4: The first fans by the Chinese
    Around 3,000 years ago, the Chinese discovered that air moving around could make us cooler. This ignited the creation of the handheld fan, with someone even taking on the task of creating a hand-powered rotary fan! As we’ve all had or used a fan before, we’d say this was a pretty big breakthrough!
  • Fun Fact 5: The first cooling towers by Middle Eastern Architects
    Architects in the Middle East were known for adding towers built over underground channels of cool air onto larger buildings. This helps circulate air, keeping the space cooler. Due to how efficient these designs were, many are still used today!
  • Fun Fact 6: The first airflow by Victorians
    If Victorians were notorious for anything, it was certainly luxury. Keeping homes with high ceilings, covered porches to keep the sun from blasting in, and large, recessed windows for constant ventilation was a must. They had a pretty solid grasp on how to achieve proper airflow to keep habitants cool and comfortable.
  • Fun Fact 7: The first home air conditioner by Americans
    Americans have a good amount of innovations under their belt, including the first home air conditioner! This appliance was originally created by Willis Carrier in an effort to get rid of excess humidity in a New York publishing house. The humidity affected it in such a way that ink took a long time to dry, and the paper would absorb some of the moisture. Nowadays, we use the modern air conditioner just about everywhere!

The Evolution of Air Conditioners

The First Central Air Conditioners

Central air is great because you don’t have to worry about messing with different units in each room of your house! These systems have a big compressor with the ability to condition large amounts of air at once.

The First Split Air Conditioners

Split air conditioners helped diversify and advance AC technology, with this one moving your general components, fans, and so on inside the AC unit. This indoor/outdoor unit presented to us models with a compressor, expansion valve, and condenser with a tube that let air travel to the indoor unit.

This step is now the reason why we have split ACs with a multi-split option.

The First Window Air Conditioners

In 1945, Robert Sherman created the first small, portable style window air conditioner which was capable not only of cooling, but heating, humidifying, dehumidifying, and filtering!

Old Building Exterior with Split Air Conditioner

Willis Carrier: The Father of the Air Conditioner

When were air conditioners invented? Well, at just 25 years old, an engineer named Willis Carrier designed a basic cooling system in an effort to control room humidity at a printing plant. This was all the way back in 1902, and the cooling system he created utilized industrial fans to blow air over steam coils filled with cold water.

While Carrier was aware that this was a relatively inefficient method of controlling humidity, he kept working on his design. By 1922, his efforts had resulted in a smaller, safer, and more powerful model.

The Development of Air Conditioner Functionality

Air conditioning units didn’t just evolve all of their modern-day features in one go. Let’s go through all of the most significant developments of the ACs over time, leading us to the incredibly accessible appliances we have today.

AC Thermostats

Initial thermostats just consisted of an on/off toggle or would allow you to set a point temperature, operation mode, or fan speed. Later on, we began to see thermostats that offered us more control and precision for our settings.

Now, for example, we can set up different settings for every day if we want to! We don’t even have to get out of our chair to set them, too! Now, you can control many through the use of your smartphone or app!

AC Thermostat on White Wall
The Innovation of Compressors

Compressors have also come a long way. Starting off, there was just a single mode: on/off. Later on, there were 2-stage units where you’d get a whopping two speeds to select between. Now, of course, we have many more speeds for our compressors and even inverter-based compressors that save energy.

The Rise of Refrigerants

For a while, R-22 refrigerant was the go-to substance for AC units. However, they were not healthy for our planet’s ozone layer, which leads us to the induction of the more environmentally-friendly R-410A. This one produces gases too, though offers superior performance.

Design Developments

As you can probably imagine, the first AC units were massive. In fact, they could get up to the size of pianos! Most people didn’t and don’t have the available space in their home for an appliance that takes up so much space. We’ve made so many design developments that air conditioners can now fit in windows and have become portable!

Latest AC Technology

While air conditioner invention history is certainly interesting, let’s talk a bit more about the latest technology we see in AC units!

  • Image Sensor Technology
    Sensor tech can detect how many people are in the room where the AC unit is located, where they are in said room, what they’re doing, and more! While this may sound a bit creepy, it’s ideal for keeping you as comfortable as possible! Moreover, it can even detect the shape and approximate size of the room to set its swing angle to optimize cooling further. If the AC notices that there’s no one in the room for a certain amount of time, it will automatically turn the unit off to save you money and energy.
  • 4D Airflow
    Modern units come with a 4-way swing blade to evenly distribute cool air in a room at all angles!
  • Fast Cooling Technologies
    Some models feature a specific button that will move air at a very high speed for half an hour or so, making the room much cooler in a very short amount of time! This way, you don’t have to wait forever, feeling hot and uncomfortable while the air conditioner keeps working to achieve a cooler space.
  • Humidity Control
    If you live in a humid environment, you’ll love the latest AC technology with dehumidification/dry mode. These air conditioners detect the humidity of a room and will start using the refrigerant to extract the extra moisture.
  • Multi-Layer Filters
    Filters have been advanced and now consist of multiple layers to help keep impurities out of our air. Currently, there are air conditioners on the market that are able to filtrate particles down to 10,000 microns or less. Many also include anti-VOC filters that can remove VOCs like formaldehyde and other harmful impurities.
  • Auto Clean
    This feature also detects how “dirty” the air in the room is, automatically cleaning its filter with differing techniques, depending on the brand and model.
  • Smart Technology
    As previously mentioned, you no longer have to get up and walk over the AC to adjust its settings. Now, you can use an app and Bluetooth to control just about every feature on it!

People Also Ask (FAQ)

What was the first building built with air conditioning?

Many of us have heard of or experienced Texas heat! It comes as no surprise then that the Milam Building in San Antonio was the first building built with air conditioning.

When did air conditioning become common in homes?

It started really becoming popular in the 1950s due to the average American being able to afford one.

Where was the first air conditioner installed?

In Brooklyn, New York.

When was refrigerated air conditioning invented?

In 1902 by Willis Carrier.

How did houses cool before air conditioning?

They were built with awnings to keep the sun from beaming directly inside. Awnings, along with the use of windows, helped keep things cool.

When was the inverter air conditioner invented?

Back in 1980, Toshiba invented the inverter!

What does the future hold for the air conditioning industry?

We can expect to see automation and smart technologies advance even further, possibly with voice commands as we see with other modern devices. It’s not too wild to think that in the future, we could even 3D print air conditioners!

Conclusion

Now that you’re pretty much a history buff on all things “air conditioning,” are you satisfied with your air conditioning unit? Perhaps it may be time for a new one, with modern features! We hope our guide has been able to answer any questions you may have.

Ian Haynes

Ian Haynes is an HVAC writer, and researcher. He has worked on hundreds of articles relating to home cooling, heating and air quality with a vast knowledge of the technical aspects of these types of appliances. Outside of his work, Ian likes exploring Brooklyn with his Labrador. Learn more about the AC Lab team here.

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