when air conditioning was just a hot idea

The high temperatures in Whitehorse over the past week got me thinking about the technology of air conditioning - partly because I am painfully lacking in any of that technology, either at home or at work, and partly because it started to bother me why we

The high temperatures in Whitehorse over the past week got me thinking about the technology of air conditioning – partly because I am painfully lacking in any of that technology, either at home or at work, and partly because it started to bother me why we call it air conditioning, and not, as would seem more sensible, just air cooling.

So, with the persistent though not very effectual assistance of my old, worn-down little room fan at my back, I set about doing book work and web searches, investigating when and where the air conditioner got invented, who invented it, and how it got its not very sensible name.

For the heck of it, I will save the solution of that last mystery for the end of this column.

The first man who could legitimately claim to have invented something like a modern air conditioning device was John Gorrie, a Florida doctor who flourished through the 1830s and 1850s.

What he initially had in mind was an ice-making machine that could be used to produce ice to be hung in buckets from the ceilings of hospital wards.

This would allow the cold air from the ice to flow downward to floor level, and push up any “corrupt” air down below from people suffering with malaria or yellow fever – diseases which were frequent epidemics in his area at that time.

In those days, many medical scientists still theorized that diseases we now know to be the product of viruses were perpetrated by “bad vapors” in the air – malaria, in fact, gets its name from the medieval Italian phrase for “bad air.”

Though he published several papers dealing with machine-produced iced as a potential cure for malaria, Gorrie also, over the years, began to see its potential in other areas, even envisioning a system by which his ice-producing machines could be used to centrally cool and cleanse whole cities.

He worked on the design of his ice-making machine through most of the 1840s, even giving up his medical practice to concentrate on his invention.

He finally was granted a patent for a compressor-based ice producing machine (in effect, a prototypical fridge) in 1850 in Britain and 1851 in the USA, and promptly went broke.

Unable to find any financial backing for his invention (which was very much in prototype, and subject to frequent failures), he ended up having a nervous breakdown in 1854 as debts and pressures accumulated, and died not long after, in 1855.

It was not until the 1902 that anyone seriously took up the quest for air-cooling technology again, and this time with diametrically opposite results.

Willis Carrier was a young graduate from Cornell University with a degree in mechanical engineering, working for the Buffalo Forge Company in New York.

The Buffalo Forge Company was a printing plant with a then-typical problem: fluctuations in the heat an humidity in its print rooms caused the paper to expand and contract slightly, and this created problems with four-colour printing.

Willis Carrier came up with an efficient compressor-based air-cooling and de-humidifying machine, and received a patent for it in 1906.

But it was not called an air conditioner.

The patent was awarded as “an apparatus for treating air,” and the immediate market he had in mind was not houses of office buildings, but factories, where regularization of temperature and humidity could mean significant gains in productivity in the course of hot summers.

Unlike the unfortunate Gorrie, Willis Carrier appears to have been a gifted business man who had no problem finding backers – perhaps because his main market was industry, not the medical establishment.

By 1915, he was heading up the Carrier Air Conditioning Company, which began expanding into domestic and office building air conditioning markets in the 1920’s, and, with the post-war housing boom of the 1950s, mushroomed into the largest manufacturer of air conditioning equipment in the world.

Today, Carrier Industries, according to its own on line information, is a $12.5 billion company with 43,000 employees; and, though now owned by a conglomerate called United Technologies Corporation, the Carrier family descendants, apparently, still hand down the CEO position in the firm from father to son or daughter from one generation to the next.

The contrast between the luck-happy Carrier and the luckless Gorrie could not be more stark.

It is a classic example of how an idea that was not so hot in one time and commercial environment can be all but too hot to handle in another.

But why are they called air conditioners? And why did Carrier initially call his company the Carrier Air Conditioning Company?

The quick answer: He stole the name from a textile-mill owner named Stuart W. Cramer, who in 1906 filed for a machine of that name, but serving a quite different purpose.

Cramer’s machine was not so much concerned with regulating temperature as with adding humidity to textile mill workshops.

Cramer probably chose the “conditioner” name for his device because he had in mind the “water conditioning” technique used in textile production at that time, where textiles would be treated with servant solvents in water to make them more easy to work with.

Maybe because his early markets were textile mills and other large industrial spaces, Carrier settled on “air conditioner” because it had a more industrial sound than something like air cooler.

Ecologically and even sociologically, the air conditioner has turned out to be an extremely mixed blessing to the world, with Freon munching at our ozone layer, and people living in insane, overheated, under-watered desert-cities like Las Vegas because room cooling makes life their sustainable.

But on days like the ones we have had over the past week, it is hard to argue that it is a technology that works a whole lot better than a little room fan.

Rick Steele is a technology

junkie who lives in Whitehorse.