The History of Air Conditioning – Then and Now

old electric fan used before air conditioning

People often take the little things in life for granted. Penicillin to battle infections, indoor plumbing and even air conditioning in the dog days of August are things that people once had to live without. The history of air conditioning is actually quite fascinating and somewhat humorous considering the things that people used to do to keep cool.

Ancient Rome

Just like most of the technologies that are in use today around the world, the ancient Romans were the first in history to attempt to control indoor temperatures. Once they had perfected the art of the aqueducts which were essentially the world’s first plumbing system, they began to produce new technologies that would allow the cold water to circulate through the walls of enclosed spaces. In fact, there was even an emperor by the name of Elagabalus who had an entire mountain of snow imported from the mountains to his Roman villa in an attempt to stay cool during the hottest part of the year.

Other Attempts

Of course, people went to other great lengths to stay cool in the summer despite the lack of electricity. Before electricity, people had what were known as insulated ‘ice boxes’ in which they could store food and ice. Some folks, in an attempt to beat the heat, would put all of their clothes (even their underwear) inside prior to wearing them in order to get some comfort. President Garfield was even known to have gone through tons and tons of ice in the late 1800s when making use of a contraption that blew air through an ice-cooled cotton sheet. It was inefficient to say the least, but it did pave the way for some fantastic ideas.

The Invention of Electricity

The availability of electricity in consumer homes is what really triggered the modernization of air conditioning as we know it today. The first device, the electric fan, was able to blow air without any man power necessary. This was a huge step forward as the oscillating tower could keep an entire room full of people a bit more comfortable than before. Soon, people were installing fans in their windows in an effort to remove hot air from their homes and while they certainly didn’t keep these homes a mild 74 degrees, they did go a long way to combat the stifling heat.

The First Air Conditioner

The very first modern air conditioner was invented by a man named Willis Carrier in 1902. However, he did not create the contraption because he was hot; he simply wanted to reduce the humidity in the printing press where he worked. After realizing the machine’s potential and working to improve it, the first residential unit was created in 1922 and released to the general public at a 1925 gathering at Times Square. The invention didn’t immediately take off since it was expensive to produce, and only 10% of homes had central air conditioning as late as 1965. Today, though, it is a staple in many places and it is estimated that central air can be found in some 85% of homes and apartments.

The history of air conditioning is a colorful one, but people all over the world can be thankful for the quick thinking and brilliant minds who took us from putting our underwear in the icebox to simply changing a number on a thermostat.