How did people stay cool before the air conditioner was invented? At the turn of the 20th century, it was perfectly normal to step outside and dunk your head in a public fountain. Or, if you lived on a farm or ranch, you might sleep on the porch or even on the front lawn. You certainly would think twice about living down south. It wasn’t easy, but back then, you just had to cope with the heat as best you could.
Along comes a New York engineer named Willis Carrier, who is widely thought of as the father of the modern air conditioner — an invention that made it possible to live in a hot climate and get things done even on the hottest days.
A brief history of the air conditioner
1851: Dr. John Gorrie gets a patent for his cooling machine. Using energy from a horse, wind-driven sails or steam, he made a compressor that made ice to help cool the air and bring relief to sick patients. Unfortunately for Gorrie, his main financial backer died unexpectedly, and so did traction for the invention.
1902: The idea of machine-cooled air sees a revival, thanks to a publisher’s problem with magazine pages getting wrinkled in the warehouse. So Carrier, an engineer, invented a machine that could add and remove humidity while cooling the air. In addition to the printing company, textile mills were early adopters — not for the comfort of workers, but to cool the spindles and reduce the number of breaking threads.
1903: Cooled air expands beyond industrial use. In 1903, the New York Stock Exchange gets air conditioning. The following year, attendees of the St. Louis World’s Fair get a cool blast of the future.
1924: Moviegoers at the Palace Theater and the Iris in Houston are treated to air conditioning. In fact, as customers entered, they “exclaim(ed) with delight.” Thus, a summertime tradition is born. By 1938, nearly all movie theaters across the U.S. were cooled by AC, which theaters marketed as “Arctic breezes” and “refrigerated washed air.”
1929: The first home air conditioner hits the market, but was large, heavy and affordable only to the very wealthy.
1939: Packard produces the first air-conditioned car. All you had to do was pop the hood and connect a special air compressor belt.
1992: As air conditioning use grows and grows, central air manufacturers became subject to conservation standards by the U.S. Department of Energy. As a result, today’s air conditioners use 50 percent less energy than 1990-made units.
2011: Air conditioning is found in 100 million homes, or 87 percent of American households.
Energy efficiency tips for your air conditioner
Now that air conditioning is a summertime essential, you probably notice how it causes your annual energy bills to spike. With these tips, you can keep your home comfortable without breaking the bank.
- Good maintenance is a must. Change the air filter, and if it’s been awhile, hire a pro to give your central air conditioner a checkup. Meanwhile, vacuum your registers with the brush attachment to remove dust buildup.
- Fight heat gain on high-temperature days by blocking the sun. Drapes and blinds are a good start. To home exteriors, add shade to the west and south sides of your home and plant trees and add awnings and arbors.
- Get a programmable thermostat and set it to higher temperatures during sleeping hours and away times. Raise the regular at-home cooling temperature by 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit and use fans to stay cool.
- If you live in a dry climate, invest in a swamp cooler or evaporative cooler. These transform hot, dry air into cooled moist air, and are often less expensive and more energy efficient than an air conditioner.
The future of air conditioning
Inventions never quit. Even technology that’s more than a century old is always evolving. That is also true for refrigerated air. As we saw in the 20th century, air conditioning went from a luxury to a must-have of modern life. Over the next century, what else can we expect?
In the near future, watch for non-vapor compression technology. Under the 2013 Climate Action Plan, hydrofluorocarbons must be phased out of air conditioning units by 2018. These HFCs emit greenhouse gases and are thought to contribute to global warming. Here’s the upside to customers: The non-vapor compression technology uses half the energy, which puts even more green into your pocket.