Happy birthday, air conditioning!

Yesterday was the 110th anniversary of air conditioning. The building pictured above—1040 Metropolitan Ave. in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York—was the first building in the world to enjoy the luxury of cold air blowing on a blisteringly hot day.

A junior engineer from a furnace company figured out a solution so simple that it had eluded everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to the naval engineers ordered to cool the White House when President James A. Garfield was dying: controlling humidity.

The junior engineer who tackled the problem was Willis Carrier, who went on to start Carrier Corporation. The solution he devised involved fans, ducts, heaters and perforated pipes ... Carrier’s plan was to force air across pipes filled with cool water from a well between the two buildings, but in 1903, he added a refrigerating machine to cool the pipes faster.

It's a neat technological story, and as the New York Times piece points out, Carrier's invention wasn't just about making people comfortable. In the beginning, it was about allowing a specific job to get done even when the weather was hot. In fact, air conditioning is still the tool that makes things like computers possible, by creating dust-free, low-humidity clean rooms where the parts can be manufactured.

Read the rest of James Barron's piece in the New York Times City Room blog


    1. Showers. But I live in a climate that doesn’t create a need for air conditioning. Even the summer heat could be dissipated with adjusted building techniques.

    2.  I’ve lived without either of those for 19 years now.

      P.S. I suspect you’re not a real hobo.

    3. Can live without both. Don’t have air conditioning in our house (we do have in our car) and I’ve lived without a shower as a small kid, could easily do it again.

  1. No single development is as responsible for the current electoral heft of the American South as the invention of the air conditioner.

    1.  Not to mention year-round sessions of the U.S. Congress, a development from which we have yet to recover.

  2. “In fact, air conditioning is still the tool that makes things like computers possible, by creating dust-free, low-humidity clean rooms where the parts can be manufactured.”

    Not to mention the really essential stuff….chocolate.

  3. I believe a different (though attached) building on the block was the first to have air-conditioning, namely the old Sackett & Wilhelm Lithographing and Publishing Company at 1027 Grand Avenue (which would technically be Bushwick, I think, given that it lies east of Bushwick Ave.). Story goes that the printers would gum up in the summer heat, prompting the proprietors to seek out a solution, which Willis Carrier provided. I lived in that building for almost a year back in 2010/2011, and can attest to the huge cistern beneath the back lot, the old remnants of the AC system scattered throughout the building, and faded paint declaring the building’s former use.

  4. I don’t know if I would say that this was the invention of air conditioning. It is probably better to say that the dehumidifier was invented. AC to me involves more than lowering the heat index by removing humidity. But then again, that might be my modern bias. I’m sure a dehumidifier 100 years ago would be a godsend.

    I question the conclusion in the NYT article that dehumidifiers reduce dust. It actually works in the opposite way. Humidity prevents dust from going airborne and it reduces the probability of electrostatic discharges. Of course, you want to control it in a band.

    Actually, reading a little further, it looks like he did invent an evaporation cooling mechanism, so his design definitely classifies as an air conditioning system.

    1.  Dehumidifiers trap dirt through a process called viscous impingement.  Dust particles stick to the wet cooling coils.

  5. A/C? if we’re talking about conditoned air that has reduced humidty, then this is correct. But if you’re talking about ‘chilled air’ then I believe it was invented in Florida as a means to reduce the effects of malaria. John Gorrie in 1842…

    1. Quite correct. He developed the ability to manufacture ice as a way to keep patients in the hospital cool. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gorrie

  6. Although I do enjoy my A/C I still feel that in some ways it brought about the downfall of neghborhoods.  Now instead of everyone hanging out on the porch talking and waving at their neighbors we seal ourselves up in our homes with the windows shut tight and curtains closed to keep out the heat.  No longer does anyone care about their neighbors because they barely see them, let alone know them.  With every invention there are good sides and bad sides.

  7. Them damned Williamsburg hipsters… even their air was cool before anyone else’s.

  8. back in the 70’s Carrier Corporation ran a poetry contest for a poem to commemorate Willis Carrier. I believe the winner was posted in the lobby of their headquarters in NYC. I searched all the tubes but could not find any record of it.

    1. I understand wanting to conserve electricity, as central AC can use quite a bit of it, but the people who won’t turn it on until the heat is just unbearable are the worst. I’ve lived with people like that, people who are not poor and who spend money on stupid shit all the time but who think it’s too expensive to run the AC. I understand conserving if you really can’t afford it, but otherwise it’s just silly (so long as it isn’t set to an extravagantly low temperature, which isn’t comfortable anyway).

  9. Its ironic that the first building with central air conditioning is now cooled by window units.

  10. “In fact, air conditioning is still the tool that makes things like computers possible, by creating dust-free, low-humidity clean rooms where the parts can be manufactured.”

    Not to mention allowing the high density data centers that back the Internet, almost all of which require many tons of AC equipment each.

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