When Was the Air Conditioner Invented?
The year 1902 marks a turning point in human history – it was the year the first true air conditioner was invented.
More than just useful for making homes and commercial buildings more comfortable on hot days, air conditioning has saved countless lives from heat-related death the world over.
It is also a major technology for controlling humidity levels and improving indoor air quality wherever it is installed.
This brief history of air conditioners and air conditioning starts with a timeline of important events – The Air Conditioner Then and Now – and then discusses in detail the most essential of them.
History of Air Conditioning Timeline
Here are important dates in air conditioning. You won’t find a more comprehensive timeline of air conditioning anywhere.
1758 – Benjamin Franklin and chemistry professor John Hadley experiment with rapid cooling methods, proving that quickly evaporating volatile liquids like alcohol could lower the temperature of an object to below freezing.
1820 – English scientist Michael Faraday demonstrates how to chill air by compressing ammonia into a liquid and allowing it to evaporate. Ammonia later became the first widely used refrigerant.
1842 to 1851 – Florida physician John Gorrie patents technology for creating ice using a horse-powered compressor, water, and steam.
1902to 1903 – Willis Carrier designs the first electrically powered air conditioning equipment. It passed air over coils filled with cold water to lower its temperature and to condense moisture out of the air to make it drier. The system is installed in the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn to control humidity that often made printing impossible. It also lowered the indoor temperature.
1904 – At the World’s Fair in St. Louis, mechanical, rather than electrical, cooling is used to cool the Missouri State Building.
1906 – The term air conditioning is coined by Stuart Cramer for equipment he invented to add moisture to the air of his textile plant.
1906 – Carrier patents his “Apparatus for Treating Air.”
1914 – The Charles Gates mansion in Minneapolis becomes the first private residence to have air conditioning. The AC “plant” was huge – 7 feet tall, 6 feet wide and 20 feet long.
1917 – The New Empire Theatre in Montgomery AL is the first movie theater to install true air conditioning. It was a “6-ton single-acting belt driven refrigerating machine.” When the Central Park Theater in Chicago was fitted with AC just a few weeks later, it got much more coverage in the press.
1922 – Carrier’s company installs air conditioning in the Metropolitan Theater, the first movie theater to have AC.
1922 – Carrier develops the first centrifugal compressor, the pre-cursor to modern variable capacity compressors.
1928 – The first chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) is invented, creating the first non-flammable refrigerant. It is called R-12, it was given the trademark name Freon.
1928 – The 21-story Milam Building in San Antonio, TX becomes the first air conditioned “skyscraper.”
1929 – The first room AC is invented and sold by Frigidaire, a split system with a condensing unit that could be installed in the basement or other nearby location.
1929 to 1931 – General Electric develops the first self-contained room air conditioners.
1931 – The first window air conditioner is invented by JQ Sherman and HH Schultz
1939 – Air conditioning is an option on the 1939 Packard automobile.
1944 – A survey by the National Association of Home Builders shows that 72% of potential homebuyers expected to be able to purchase an affordable home with central air conditioning after WWII.
1945 – The prototype of the modern and affordable window AC unit is invented by Robert Sherman.
1947 – 43,000 affordable window air conditioners are sold in the US.
1950s – National Homes, manufacturer of pre-fab homes, begins offering central air conditioning as an option for $500.
1952 – 365,000 room air conditioners were sold.
1953 – Automobile manufacturer General Motors offered air conditioning in Cadillac and Oldsmobile models as a $600 option. The equipment was installed in the trunk and added 250 pounds to the vehicle’s weight.
1954 – GM introduces the All-Weather Eye automobile air conditioning with dashboard controls and a cost of just $395.
1955 – Electric provider Consolidated Edison survey results showed that more consumers want a room air conditioner than want a TV or washing machine. The average cost of a room AC was $200 as more manufacturers entered the market.
1965 – The Harris County Domed Stadium, aka the Houston Astrodome, is the first air conditioned sports venue. It was dubbed the “world’s largest air-conditioned room.”
1973 – Japanese HVAC manufacturer Daikin invents the mini split or ductless air conditioning system.
1975 to 1978 – Heat pump technology is developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
1980 – The U.S. with just 5% of the world’s population consumes more air-conditioning than all other countries combined.
1982 – Daikin invents the variable refrigerant flow system, or VRF air conditioning.
1990 – The Clean Air Act mandates phasing out CFC refrigerant because they deplete ozone in the upper atmosphere.
1992 – Energy Standards are set by the US Department of Energy projected to save $29 billion in energy from 1993 to 2023.
1998 – The refrigerant R-410 is developed at the Oak Ridge National Lab. It becomes the leading refrigerant in the 2000s because it improves efficiency and does less harm to ozone.
2006 – New Department of Energy (DOE) efficiency standards are expected to lower carbon dioxide emissions by 369 million metric tons annually, the equivalent of the emissions from 72.4 million automobiles.
2007 to 2012 – The US Energy Independence and Security Act creates funding for 5 years of solar air conditioning research and development. A range of technologies were developed to provide solar open-loop air conditioning using desiccants, solar closed-loop absorption cooling and solar cooling systems using concentrating collectors. These technologies are significant in achieving zero-energy building development.
2015 – DOE energy efficiency standards for commercial HVAC equipment are expected to save 15 quadrillion BTU of energy through 2045 and cutting carbon dioxide emission by 885 million metric tons during that period.
2015 – The DOE also announces the development of projects exploring air conditioning that does not use refrigerant or vapor compression technology.
2019 – Sony begins the First Flight crowdfunding campaign for its wearable air conditioner design called the Sony Reon Pocket. Its technology lowers and raises temperature by transferring heat using electrical current, known as the Peltier Effect.
2019 – Engineers at the University of Missouri design wearable air conditioning that is passive, reflecting solar heat while allowing the body to naturally dissipate heat, achieving cooling of up to 11 degrees F. The program is named “Multiscale porous elastomer substrates for multifunctional on-skin electronics with passive-cooling capabilities,” and is led by Professor Zheng Yan.
How Many Homes Have Air Conditioning?
1940 – Just 1 in 400 US homes had an air conditioner.
1955 – 1 in 22 homes had at least one air conditioner, or about 4.5%.
1960 – The US Census shows that 13% of American homes had AC in at least one room.
1970 – The US Census shows that almost 37% of American homes had AC in at least one room.
1980 – The Census shows that 57% of US homes had some form of air conditioning.
1993 – 68% of housing units had air conditioning.
2009 – 87% of housing had some form of AC.
2016 – 100 million US homes have central air conditioning, or about 87% of households.
The Air Conditioner Then and Now
The world was changed forever when Willis Haviland Carrier invented his “apparatus to treat air” in 1902, installing it in the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn, New York in 1903 and getting a patent for it in 1906. Today, air conditioning is becoming more efficient, less harmful to the environment and affordable in many poor countries where its installation is saving lives and improving the quality of life for millions of people.
This history of air conditioning explores many of the key developments of this amazing technology. Our guide begins by discussing how air was cooled before AC. Then we look at Willis Carrier, answering the common question, “When was air conditioning invented?”
Air conditioning would not be possible, at least not at the current level of efficiency and effectiveness, without refrigerants, so their history and current state of technology are explored.
Cooling Air Before Air Conditioning
Heat is nothing new. Neither is finding ways to deal with it. And evaporation is central to them all.
Why do we sweat? To cool the body. Think about sweating on a hot day. Not pleasant, but the sweat performs a function. As it evaporates off your skin, you feel cooler because it takes heat with it, and the body is cooled. Think of getting out of a pool or shower. As the water evaporates, you feel cool, perhaps even chilly.
Think of a dog panting. As moisture evaporates off its tongue, it takes heat with it and the body is cooled. Have you ever noticed birds standing with their mouth open on a hot day? You guessed it, cooling itself through evaporation.
Ben Franklin, American Inventor
The history of air conditioning goes back at least as far as Benjamin Franklin and 1758. He and chemistry professor John Hadley found that they could freeze water in a beaker by dribbling pure alcohol on the glass while pumping a steady supply of air on the beaker with a bellows. The rapid evaporation caused by the process took so much heat with it, the water in the beaker froze.
British scientist David Faraday performed a similar experiment in 1820 by compressing ammonia and allowing it to evaporate. Freezing temperatures were achieved and the rudimentary principle of evaporative air conditioning was proven.
As you study the history of air conditioning, you will see that compressing refrigerant and then allowing it to evaporate – or decompress – is the key to air conditioning.
Dr. John Gorrie, Florida Physician and Inventor
Florida is a hot place. And heat can hinder or prevent healing. In 1840, Doctor Gorrie devised a system that compressed air. Compressing the air condensed its heat. Then the air was allowed to expand, cooling it. The cooler air was routed through a tank of briny water that would cool to temperatures below freezing, making it very cold. Gorrie was a visionary, but a lack of financial backing prevented his technology from spreading.
The Madison Square Theatre and Hazel Kirke
Before the venue was called Madison Square Garden, or simply “the Garden” to locals, it was called the Madison Square Theatre. No windows. Poor ventilation. Cramped seating. A thousand gas jets to provide light.
Hot, hot, hot. 100 degrees or more on warm days.
Most NYC theaters shut down from late spring to early fall because the heat was simply too much to combat.
But in May of 1880, New York City and the entire Northeast was set ablaze, figuratively, by a nasty spring heatwave. In fact, that’s the year the term “heat wave” was coined. And Madison Square Theatre was heavily marketing the 100th performance of the crowd-gathering play Hazel Kirke. Theater owner and entrepreneur Steele MacKaye designed a system that proved remarkably effective.
Air was pulled in through the ceiling by a large fan and forced through cheesecloth to filter it. A fan in the theater basement pulled it over large racks of ice to cool and dehumidify the air. It was then pushed through more than a mile of piping and disseminated in the theater. When patrons walked off the street where it was 90-degrees Fahrenheit, they found the theater a cool 70 degrees.
Willis Carrier, the Father of Air Conditioning
When was air conditioning invented?
And Willis Carrier’s “apparatus to treat air” both cooled it and dehumidified it. While we tend to think that the cooling part is most essential, in fact it was removing moisture from the air that was most important to Carrier’s first customer, Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company. If you’ve ever thought, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” then you understand.
Humidity was causing the company’s papers to wrinkle and curl. Ink wouldn’t dry, and often became smudged. Production was sometimes stopped until weather conditions changes. If the shop were in arid Phoenix rather than humid Brooklyn, there would have been no problem.
Willis Carrier was a 25-year old engineer with the Buffalo Forge Company. He built a system that sent air through coils filled with cold water. The air was cooled, but more importantly, it was dehumidified.
As the air passed over the cold coils, moisture from the air condensed on the coils as it does on a cold glass of iced tea on a humid summer day. The air left the system cooler – and also drier!
In December 1911, Carrier presented a paper called Rational Psychometric Formulae to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Psychrometric is a compound word meaning “cold” and “the means of.” The field is concerned with the physical and thermodynamic properties of gas-vapor combinations.
Carrier and six colleagues from the Buffalo Forge, about to be laid off in a down-sizing effort, formed the Carrier Engineering Corporation in 1915.
Over the years, Carrier and his company designed and installed air conditioning systems for the White House, Senate and House of Representatives and other important buildings throughout the United States.
Willis Carrier remained active in the Carrier Corporation until his death in 1950 at the age of 73.
Willis Carrier air conditioning innovations and important installations:
The company Carrier and his colleagues formed was responsible for many “firsts” in the history of air conditioning.
1902 – First system to cool and dry air.
1906 – Carrier patents his “Apparatus for Treating Air.” He had continued to tweak its design to improve performance and efficiency.
1911 – Carrier presents his paper “Rational Psychometric Formula” to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The formula remains relevant to the HVAC industry.
1919 – A Carrier engineer designs a roof-mounted air conditioning system for movie theater installation. The AC plants had always been located in the basement prior to this and pumped to “mushroom” shaped vents beneath every few seats. The roof-mounted design allowed the cool air to gently settle over the crowd.
1922 – Carrier develops the first centrifugal compressor, the pre-cursor to modern air conditioner compressors. The refrigerant is dielene. The compressor was installed in the Onondaga Pottery Company in Syracuse NY and is now housed in the Smithsonian museum.
1924 – Carrier installs 3 centrifugal chillers in the J.L. Hudson department store in Detroit, the first air conditioning in a department store. The system cost $250,000, or more than $3 million in today’s dollars.
1925 – Carrier air conditioning is installed in New York’s famous Rivoli Theater at a cost of $65,000. The “refrigerating plant,” as the marquee promoted, led to a ticket sales increase of approx. $5,000 per week. The made back the entire cost of the AC in just 13 weeks.
1927 – Carrier installs the first air conditioning system on Broadway in the new Ziegfeld Theatre, which opened with Rio Rita. The Ziegfeld was billed as the “Coolest Theatre in the World” where the temperature could be kept as cool as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
1925 to 1930 – Carrier installs AC in more than 300 movie theaters across the United States.
1928 – Carrier develops the Weathermaker, the first AC unit designed specifically for residential use.
1928 to 1929 – The US House (1928) and Senate building (’29) are outfitted with Carrier AC systems. Total cost was $323,000.
1929 – The West Wing of the White House gets Carrier AC during restoration after a fire.
1931 – The Carrier Atmospheric Cabinet hits the market, a room air conditioner. The first units are installed in Lehman Brothers Wall Street offices.
1932 – The famous Radio City Music Hall opens, and Carrier AC keeps it cool.
History of the Price of Air Conditioning
1920s: The first residential air conditioning systems cost $10,000 to $50,000 in the 1920s. In today’s dollars, that is $120,000 to $600,000.
1925 – Carrier air conditioning in New York’s Rivoli Theater costs $65,000.
1930 – The GE room cooler AC is offered for $950 at a time when a Ford Model T cost about half that.
1932 – The Carrier Atmospheric Cabinet room AC cost $900 plus $500 to install.
1938: The Chrysler Airtemp console-style room air conditioner cost $416. The average hourly wage was 64 cents, the equivalent of 650 hours of work.
Late 1940s – The average cost of a window air conditioner is about $400, or $3,500 in 2020 dollars.
1950s – Homebuilder National Homes offers central air conditioning as an option for $500.
1953 – Automobile manufacturer General Motors offered air conditioning in Cadillac and Oldsmobile models as a $600 option.
1954 – GM introduces the All-Weather Eye automobile air conditioning, a $395 option.
1955 –The average cost of a room AC was $200 as more manufacturers entered the market.
1966 – The average price of a window air conditioner is about $150.
Air Conditioning Saves Lives by Reducing Heat Stroke
As air conditioning became widespread through the Unites States, death from heat stroke dropped dramatically.
Death from heat stroke dropped by 80% in the era from 1960 to 2004 compared with 1900 to 1959.
A Brief History of Air Conditioning Refrigerants
Refrigerants are the liquids that absorb heat so that it can be moved from one place to another.
The first commonly used refrigerant was ammonia, followed by carbon dioxide. Both were flammable and also not suited for use in small room air conditioners.
Sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride refrigerants were developed for small applications in the 1900s and 1910s.
In the 1920s, chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) were first synthesized by engineers at General Motors. These refrigerants were less hazardous and more effective. What wasn’t known about them at the time is they cause depletion of the ozone layer when released in the atmosphere. By the 1970s, major concern about chlorofluorocarbons was raised, which ultimately led to them being banned for us in the automobile industry and eventually banned entirely.
The new class of refrigerants to take their place were hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC), and they don’t damage ozone. However, they are still considered greenhouse gases, and some states are planning to phase them out over the next few years.
Here is a comparison of common refrigerants and their global warming potential (GWP), a measurement of their negative effect as a greenhouse gas.
- R23 GWP of 14,800 now banned because as a CFC, it caused ozone depletion.
- R12 GWP of 10,900 now banned
- R11 GWP of 4,750 now banned
- R22 GWP of 1810 now banned
- R410A GWP of 2088
- R32 GWP of 675
- R134A GWP of 1430
- R290 GWP of 3
- R600 GWP of 3