07/17/2012 12:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Happy Birthday, Dear Air Conditioning ...


I don't know about you but I'm an air conditioning junkie--I've got to have it; especially in the humidity-drenched, New York City dog days of summer. Living without A/C would be insane; I'd take 20 showers a day and live in a constant state of mental and physical exhaustion. What in the world did people do before air conditioning existed?

Here's my little lifesaver, without which my life would be a sweaty, intolerable existence ...


... isn't she a little sweetheart?

On July 17th, 1902, exactly 110 years ago today, a 25-year old, Willis Carrier changed the world with his invention. Now, it wasn't the light bulb or the telephone or the car or airplane but the air conditioner would change all of our lives nonetheless.


(This and all images which follow are courtesy of "Weathermakers to the World" & Carrier)

So in recognition of "Better Living Through Technology" and the observance of the birthday today of the invention of the air conditioner, I am going to give some brief history, which I think is fascinating and pay homage to this rather little but rather heavy metal box which has made our lives so much more livable and bearable.

I'm not sure why I thought this, but for some reason I always thought somebody who was hot and couldn't take the heat anymore just came up with the idea of the air conditioner. Wrong.

Turns out Carrier had much different and bigger fish to fry initially: business, or as we sometimes refer to it these days, Enterprise. It was only after a vast and theretofore unheard of proliferation of a technology, that A/C made it into the American consumer consciousness.

So like many of our great inventions, A/C was created to solve a particular problem; an industrial problem. According to "Weathermakers to the World: The Story Of A Company. The Standard of an Industry," (a book which I will use as my main source for this piece) by Eric B. Schultz (Carrier, 2012, Amazon), the young newly minted Cornell engineer Willis Carrier was working for a supplier of fans and heaters called Buffalo Forge. Their client, Sacket & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Company of Brooklyn was having major problems with printing and lining up the color registration of their print jobs. This was because with the extreme heat and humidity, the paper they were printing on would expand and contract throwing off the results.


So what they had there was a business and production problem. And like any good vendor, even one that focused on mainly heating, Buffalo Forge entertained drawings and designs from Willis Carrier about an entirely new business and revenue stream.

Rewind 20 years previously, when in early July, 1881, President Garfield was shot by an assassin. For almost three months, the hospital in Washington struggled to keep him alive and save his life--in the absolutely brutal DC heat and humidity. The hospital staff tried many novel ways to cool down the President's room in order to allow him to recuperate including putting huge ice-water filled troughs under the windows and then hanging sheets above them which were touching the water and did, for a time help. But Garfield expired. So this is certainly another component in the 'hows and whys' of how A/C began and it centered on the places where people were making things.




So Willis Carrier's technology spread first in industry, where presumably the business leaders were not so concerned with the comfort of the workers as the quality of the product and not letting the heat and humidity ruin it. But that calculating mentality wouldn't last long.

In the 1920s, A/C began its inexorably spread into the public/consumer world. First offices, then department stores and most especially into movie theaters where the sweaty throngs would pack in for some frosty relief and thus creating the 'summer blockbuster.'


But A/C didn't really make it into the American home until 1955, at which point there were approximately 1 in 22 homes with this new convenience. By the 1960, there were 1 in 5 American homes with A/C. Now, there are an estimated 87% of US homes with A/C.

So, the next time you turn on your air conditioner and say, "Ahhhhh," remember Willis Carrier and that printing company with a business problem. But for him, we'd all be sweating it out right now and heading the way of President Garfield.