The history of Air Conditioning..

Can you imagine a hot summers day without air conditioning? Air conditioning is used to create and maintain a certain temperature, relative humidity, and air purity conditions in indoor spaces. One of the most refreshing feelings in the summer has to be entering into an air-conditioned space.

Once considered a luxury, air conditioning is now an essential, allowing us to cool homes, businesses, hospitals, data centres and many other buildings and sectors vital to our economy and daily lives. In fact, air temperature is so important to us that about 10% of UK Electricity is used for Cooling and Air Conditioning.

Like most important breakthroughs, modern commercial and residential air conditioning technology is a result of a series of advancements by scientists and inventors who challenged themselves to come up with creative solutions to problems of the day.

Few of us know the long history of air conditioning. From its early days in second century China, it’s grown to become central to many of our everyday lives. It’s helped populate huge great swathes of middle America and made those of us who live with it, less able to live without it.

The influence of such an everyday appliance or system can’t be underestimated. We hope you enjoy our potted history of air conditioning, as we explore where it came from and what its future holds.

Where did air conditioning begin?

The history of air conditioning technically was  attempted way back in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians would hang water-socked reeds on windowsills where the wind would then evaporate the water on the reeds and the air around them cooler.

Even in Ancient Rome they had their own method. Water from aqueducts was circulated through the walls of certain villas to keep them cool. Before air conditioners were developed, to help keep life more comfortable in hot weather, people used big blocks of ice, usually shipped in from frozen lakes in large quantities.

The concept of air conditioning or the chilling of air goes way back into history in second-century China and an inventor named Ding Huan. He invented a three-metre diameter rotary fan that was human powered via a crank, with a series of interconnecting wheels. It was effective enough to cool an entire hall full of people, despite using only human power to create a breeze.

Hand fans were very common throughout history and were replaced by electric fans during the early 1900s. Whilst these don’t actually cool the air, they produce a ‘wind chill’ by evaporating any moisture on your skin and giving the effect of lowering your body temperature.

Air cooling began being discussed in around 1758 by the American Inventor Benjamin Franklin who experimented with the evaporation of alcohol to reach freezing temperatures. It took some 70 years more for this to be developed into commercial refrigeration as, it was in 1834 that the first working vapour compression refrigeration system was built.

Prior to all of this however was a Floridian Doctor called John Gorrie, who, in 1842 developed a machine that made ice to cool the air for his patients. Gorrie believed that cooling was the key to avoiding diseases like malaria and making patients more comfortable, but his rudimentary system for cooling hospital rooms required ice to be shipped to Florida from frozen lakes and streams in the northern United States.

To get around this expensive logistical challenge, Gorrie began experimenting with the concept of artificial cooling. He designed a machine that created ice using a compressor powered by a horse, water, wind-driven sails, or steam and was granted a patent for it in 1851. His invention laid the foundation for modern air conditioning and refrigeration

Before the invention of the air conditioner, these ice-based cooling systems became the norm. So, when air conditioners were first introduced in 1903, their output ratings were measured based on how much ice you would need to create the same cooling power. This was known as the Ice Power Rating but has now been replaced with a more logical BTU (British Thermal Unit) or KwH rating.

The first commercial air conditioning system.

Perhaps the most surprising fact is that air conditioning wasn’t developed for people, but for paper. The idea of artificial cooling went stagnant for several years until engineer Willis Carrier took a job that would result in the invention of the first modern electrical air conditioning unit. While working for the Buffalo Forge Company in 1902, Carrier was tasked with solving a humidity problem that was causing magazine pages to wrinkle and ink running during the summertime. He came up with the ideas for the first widely known factory-scale cooler!

Through a series of experiments, Carrier designed a system that controlled humidity using cooling coils and secured a patent for his “Apparatus for Treating Air,” which could either humidify (by heating water) or dehumidify (by cooling water) air. As he continued testing and refining his technology, he also devised and patented an automatic control system for regulating the humidity and temperature of air in textile mills

It wasn’t long before Carrier realized that humidity control and air conditioning could benefit many other industries, and he eventually broke off from Buffalo Forge, forming Carrier Engineering Corporation with six other engineers.

An Office Air Conditioner.

The first office-based system followed in 1903 in the New York Stock Exchange. The system designed by Alfred R. Wolff, used three ammonia-absorption machines, each of which had a cooling capability equivalent to a hundred and fifty tons of ice. According to New Yorker Magazine, he went onto become the leading air conditioning engineer in New York City.

Whilst commercial systems may have been his everyday work, he also later designed three systems for residential properties too, for the Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Astor residences. As you can imagine, these didn’t come cheap.

Residential Air Conditioning.

All of the early development in air conditioning took place in the United States and it was also here where the first domestic system appeared. It took another seven years in 1910, before it was installed in a domestic mansion in Minneapolis. The lucky recipient was Charles Gates, the son of the barbed wire inventor John Warne Gates. Sadly Charles was killed aged only 37 years in a hunting accident before he ever got to experience his newly cooled home.

This ‘domestic’ air conditioning system was 2.5 metres high, 2 metres wide, and over 6.5 metres long, but looking at the scale of the house it was effectively an industrial scale system.

Because of the size and cost of the systems at the time, only incredibly wealthy people with huge homes could afford air conditioning systems. In those days, they cost anywhere from £6,000 to £30,000, which today would be a price more like £70,000 to £360,000.

Building off refrigeration technology, Frigidaire introduced a new split-system room cooler to the marketplace in 1929 that was small enough for home use and shaped like a radio cabinet. However, the system was heavy, expensive, and required a separate, remotely controlled condensing unit. General Electric’s Frank Faust improved on this design, developing a self-contained room cooler, and General Electric ended up producing 32 similar prototypes from 1930 to 1931.

Around this same time, Thomas Midgley, Albert Henne and Robert McNary of General Motors synthesized chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) coolants, which became the world’s first non-flammable refrigerating fluids, substantially improving the safety of air conditioners. However, the chemicals would be linked to ozone depletion decades later and were eventually phased out by governments all across the globe after the Montreal Protocol in the 1990s. If only they were phased out earlier, the planet might be in a slightly better state nowadays.

Developed by Theatres.

The next big investor in the history of air conditioning was the cinema or Movie Theatre market in the US. When air conditioning technology became more prevalent in the early 1900s, movie theatre owners invested in AC systems to fill seats during the stickiest and hottest days of the year. Most people didn’t have home air conditioning, so the movie theatre was the perfect escape. “Refrigerated Air” was often highlighted in theatre advertisements.

During the 1930’s, this became so successful that it wasn’t long before the movie makers and cinema owners began to plan the launch of their biggest movies as their ‘Summer Blockbuster’ series.

Presidential ratings.

A large portion of success in the history of air conditioning is thanks to Herbert Hoover, the 31st US president, who served from March 1929 to March 1933. In his first few months, he suffered under a blisteringly hot summer. He took the decision in 1929 to spend $30,000 on a new air conditioning system for the Oval Office, even though only months before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 happened, starting the Great Depression. So at least his four years in office were cool.

Still very much a luxury in the 1930s, despite being popular.

The first single-room air conditioner was invented in 1931 by H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman. It sat on a window ledge and vented through the window opening. It was initially eye-wateringly expensive, costing at the time between $10,000 and $50,000. That’s the equivalent of $120,000 and $600,000 (£97,000 – £490,000) today!

In 1939, the American luxury car company Packard invented the first automobile with air-conditioning. To activate the air-conditioning, the driver had to stop the engine, open the hood, and disconnect a compressor belt. It wasn’t the most consumer-friendly design, but it worked.

By the 1950’s these small domestic units were far more affordable and became a common sight across the United States. Once these cheaper units were developed, it only took three years for more than one million units to be sold.

They are now so prevalent that they are one of the biggest users of energy in the entire country. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Americans spend more than $22 billion per year and use more than 183 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity just to cool their homes every year.

This is clearly a lot in any currency, but to put that into some form of context, this energy consumption for air conditioning alone is equal to the amount of energy Africa uses every year to power the entire continent.

Bigger isn’t always better, but newer invariably is..

In the same way that we don’t use a chainsaw to crack a nut, it’s important to specify an air conditioning system that is appropriate for the space it’s trying to cool. If you choose an air conditioning unit that is bigger and more powerful than the space it is operating in, you’ll use more energy than necessary. This principle applies to all types of air conditioners in any type of environment. The system of choice should be in proportion to the size of the room it is being installed in.

Check out our guide on how to choose an air conditioning system for your business.

Efficiency is everything. A newer system replacing one that’s as little as seven years old will be far, far more efficient. In the average home or office, over half of the energy costs are spent on heating and cooling. It doesn’t take a genius of economics to understand that a newer system could pay for itself many times over just in the savings in running costs within its design life.

Designed to Dehumidify.

As Willis Carrier found in his early experiments, the benefit of air conditioning isn’t just in the cooler and more controlled air, but also the dehumidifying effect that came with it.

Cool air can’t carry as much moisture as warm air, so the act of lowering the temperature of a room also draws the moisture out of it. While air conditioning isn’t as effective as a purpose designed dehumidifier, it will help reduce moisture and therefore the control of mould and mildew growth. This promoted various uses of and yet another stepping stone in the history of air conditioning.

Saving lives with air conditioning.

As far-fetched as it sounds, this cooling and dehumidifying effect also makes it perfect for advanced lab research, where controlled conditions are essential. This has allowed more advanced experimentation and ultimately life-saving drug production that would not have been possible without it.

But it’s helping us all in the heat too. American researchers found that the chance of dying on extremely hot summer days has fallen more than 80 percent over the last 50 years. The research team put this huge advance down to the rise in the prevalence of air conditioning.

At the same time, AC has made us all less tolerant of heat too. Previous studies have shown that the prevalence of air conditioning has reduced our natural tolerance for heat. Meaning a hot summer’s day seems much more amplified than it did a few generations ago.

Imagine life in Dubai without air conditioning? Even the oldies who could cope so easily in the heatwave in summer 1976, will be seen scurrying for air-conditioned cars and shops to get away from the heat. And can you even imagine living in a 40-degree Summer day heat in Dubai without air conditioning? No, us either.

They do help reduce allergies.

Air conditioning systems and their extraordinary filtration will also remove allergens and other small particles from the air. So if you are particularly prone to allergies then life in an air-conditioned environment will make your life a whole lot easier and keep the summer sneezing at bay.

What this also implies is that air conditioning maintenance is absolutely essential too. Something as simple as a dirty filter will reduce operating efficiency and require more energy to run as well as reduce its ability to filter out allergens. Find out how often should you change your air filters.

Shifting populations.

The rise of air conditioning allowed some of the US states that would have otherwise been considered too hot, to become far more easily habitable. In the United States, the historical powerhouse was the Northeast in New York and Washington. As Air Conditioning worked its way across the states, so did the economies begin to boom in the hotter, southern states such as Arizona, Nevada, Florida, and Texas.

The history of air conditioning in Dubai and the Gulf States is fascinating. These geographical locations have built their economies on the spending power of oil and the cooling power of air conditioning. Without the benefit of cool hotels and offices, Dubai would have remained a non-starter for anyone but the bravest of travellers.

Influence in architecture.

Before air conditioning, homes and buildings were designed with higher ceilings, external passageways between buildings to allow airflow and even screened external porches to allow sleeping outside in the warmer months. They often used natural landscaping to create shadows and harnessed the benefits of the stack effect throughout their designs, to naturally ventilate them, so that homes and their owners would stay cool.

As air conditioning grew in popularity, architects stopped building for these natural cooling effects and in many ways, architecture became less dramatic. The building norms it set, meant that without natural ventilation, they were entirely dependent on air-conditioning. A modern building without it, quickly becomes stuffy and hot.

As we move towards the future however, with more passive house and office design, natural ventilation is again being designed into structures to support air conditioning systems and minimise energy usage and energy wastage. Of course, ventilation has returned to priority level for buildings due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the crucial effect that indoor air quality has on the wide spread of this virus in indoor environments.

New buildings are being created that can breathe more naturally, use louvres and overhangs to keep the sun and its heat at bay in the summer and harness the warmth of the lower sun in the winter. They work in tandem with air conditioning and natural ventilation systems, which when designed properly, deliver exceptional living and working spaces.

Looking into the future of cool air.

After dissecting the history of air conditioning, its time to take a peak into the future. When it comes to the changes that are on the horizon in the air conditioning industry, it is clear that the future is now. The following are some of the top changes that we think will be made soon, as the industry begins to mitigate increased demand coupled with carbon emission reduction.

  1. One of the first expected developments in the air conditioning industry is the development of low global warming potential systems (Low-GWP). Experts agree this development could lead to a reduction of carbon emissions by as much as 20% in the coming years.

    The AC industry has consistently worked to protect the environment and meet the demands of energy efficiency and affordability. Developments have already begun.

    With the development of non-ozone-depleting HFCs and HFC blends, the air conditioning industry can meet global demands successfully, while also doing its part to protect the environment. As of now, advanced testing is being conducted in the area of low-GWP systems. Many products are already available, and many more are expected to enter the arena in the coming months.

  2. Without a doubt, scientists must continue to hone their skills and develop new refrigerants for the latest air conditioning systems that will soon be hitting the market to cool your home.

    In a study conducted by the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, multiple alternative refrigerants were studied for their efficiency when used in ductless mini-split AC systems.

    The study found with a few modifications, alternative refrigerants performed just as well, and in some cases better, than R-410A. This study has produced great hope in the industry’s ability to meet demands with non-ozone-depleting refrigerant options.

  3. Since Willis Carrier first invented the air conditioner, the basic design of these systems has not changed significantly. Many feel it is time for a new design that reflects today’s modern world and the need for less bulk, reduced noise, and improved efficiency.

    Many in the air conditioning industry now believe it will soon be possible to use refrigerants that offer near-zero global warming potential. When these refrigerants are coupled with sleek, low-profile designs and quieter systems, consumers will be excited to get their hands on the latest models that seek to reinvent the air conditioner as we know it now.

    One of the biggest threats to the reformation of the humble air conditioner is cost. Projected costs for these new systems could be hundreds of dollars more. Will consumers be willing to pay these increased prices on technology they are not yet familiar with fully?

    This conundrum has left scientists and other professionals in the industry scrambling for answers. If these systems could be produced at a cheaper price, they could then become available to the masses, including low-income areas of the world where air conditioning is still considered a luxury many cannot afford.

  4. There are still countries in the world that are not using air conditioners on a massive scale. Some of the hottest countries, such as South Africa, Indonesia, and India, only report around 10% usage, despite their sweltering temperatures.

    With more affordable and efficient options available, air conditioners could provide life-changing comfort to those who need them the most. It is the poorest of our global population that needs the air conditioning industry to rise and change the way they produce systems.

Now Is the Time for the Industry to Take Action.

It will be interesting to see what happens as scientists continue to work on new refrigerant options that will help overhaul the way air conditioners work in the modern world.

As of now, air conditioners are seriously lacking in appeal for those who want to protect the environment. What will become of the future of air conditioning?

Air conditioners will remain increasingly important in many countries as higher temperatures take over. With new refrigerants and better design, air conditioning systems will operate more efficiently and effectively than ever, giving rise to even more of an increase in interest.

Maintaining an air conditioning system.

Regular maintenance is key to maintaining the operating efficiency of any air conditioning system. Lucky for you we have a wonderful planned, preventative, and reactive maintenance service in place to keep your air conditioning and HVAC systems operating to their full potential.

For more information on air conditioning or the wider HVAC industry, please don’t hesitate to speak to us today. In the meantime, follow our journey on Linkedin, Facebook and Instagram for more handy insights.