A Brief History of HVAC

A Brief History of HVAC

Air conditioning is something we take for granted, but when it’s on the fritz we certainly take notice. Have you ever thought about the history of air conditioning? Who was the inventor of air conditioning?

AC history (the beginnings)

In the 1840s, long before electricity was invented, John Gorrie, a Florida doctor and inventor thought cooling might be the remedy for fighting disease and keeping people comfortable. He came up a system of interior cooling that involved transporting huge blocks of ice from frozen lakes and streams in the north to cool hospital rooms. The logistics were unreasonable, so he experimented with refrigeration and devised a machine that made ice using horsepower, wind-powered sails or steam. He was granted a patent for his ice-making machine in 1851 but never saw it come to the marketplace, as his chief financial backer died. However, his work laid the foundation for modern-day air conditioning.

When was air conditioning invented?​

Willis Carrier, who worked as an engineer at the Buffalo (NY) Forge Company, was given the task of solving a big humidity problem in a Brooklyn publishing company that made magazine pages wrinkle. He designed and patented his “Apparatus for Treating Air” that used cooling coils to either humidify the air by heating water or dehumidify by cooling water. He ran tests to perfect his technology and then built and patented an automatic control system that regulated the humidity and air temperature in textile mills. With the success of his apparatus, he realized that other kinds of businesses could benefit from temperature and humidity regulation, so he left Buffalo Forge and formed his own company—Carrier Engineering Corporation—with six other engineers. The AC invention date—1902—is credited to Carrier.


When was the term “air conditioning first used” and how big was the first AC unit?

In 1906, Stuart Cramer, who was a textile mill engineer, was the first person to coin the term “air conditioning.” The first residential unit was installed in 1914 and needed a room of its own: it was seven feet high, six feet wide and 20 feet long. One of these early units carried a price tag of $10,000 to $50,000, which translates to $120,000 to $600,000 at today’s rate of exchange.

What other major achievements in heating/cooling history followed?

Just two years later, in 1904, organizers of the St. Louis World’s Fair used mechanical refrigeration to cool parts of the Missouri State Building that housed fair events. It was able to circulate 35,000 cubic feet of air per minute and gave the public its first glimpse of cooling used for comfort. That same year, theaters began using a modified heating/cooling system that utilized refrigeration equipment to force cool air through floor vents. The problem was that lower areas were too cold and upper areas were too hot and muggy.

When was the first furnace invented?

We’ve talked about cooling, but heating is equally important. Benjamin Franklin invented the cast iron Franklin stove in 1742, which was a predecessor of the furnace. Until 1885, most homes were heated by wood-burning fireplaces, but a riveted-steel coal furnace transported heat by natural convection via ducts from the basement furnace to upper rooms. Cast iron radiators were invented around the same time and enabled homeowners to heat their homes with a coal-fired boiler that could deliver hot water or steam heat to radiators in every room. In 1935, the first forced-air furnace was introduced and used an electric fan to distribute coal-heated air through the home’s ducts; gas- and oil-fired versions followed.

How else did Carrier influence HVAC history?

Carrier’s company installed the first well-designed cooling system for theaters in Los Angeles in 1922. Air was pumped through higher vents, which resulted in more equally distributed cooling. On Memorial Day in 1925, Carrier introduced a centrifugal chilling system at New York’s Rivoli Theater: a breakthrough in HVAC inventions. Although it was more reliable and less costly than previous systems, it was still too big and expensive to use wide scale.

Was Carrier the only name associated with air conditioning?

Frigidaire and General Electric both appeared on the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) scene within a decade of Carrier’s big achievement. In 1929, Frigidaire debuted a split-system room cooler that was shaped like a radio cabinet. Although it was small enough for homes, it was but too heavy required its own condenser. A year later, General Electric patented 32 prototypes for improved self-contained room coolers. In 1931, H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman invented the first room air conditioner; it sat on a window ledge, similar to portable units today. Around the same time, General Motors synthesized CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) coolants, the world’s first non-flammable refrigerants. Although they helped with cooling, CFC coolants were later linked to ozone depletion and phased out in the 1990s.

What’s the story of the modern air conditioners we’re familiar with?

Since 1947, AC units became more compact and cheaper. In that year, 43,000 systems were in use. By the 1960s, most new homes in the United States were built with central air conditioning. By then, electric air conditioner window units were affordable and had come down in price from the early days; a 1938 Chrysler unit cost $416. By 2009, the Energy Information Administration reported that 87 percent of all American households—about 100 million homes—used AC units.

Why is air conditioning important?

We know that air conditioning helps keep us comfortable, but it also saves lives. Between 1960 and 2004, heat-related deaths in the United States were 80 percent lower than they had been in the previous 59 years. Air conditioning played a major role in reducing those numbers.

How can I learn more about HVAC?

You can enroll in HVAC technician programs at Coyne College Chicago. You’ll get hands-on instruction from industry professionals that will teach you to install, troubleshoot and service domestic and commercial HVAC-R systems. Earn your diploma in as little as 42 weeks at Coyne College and you’ll be prepared for a rewarding, in-demand career that O*NET OnLine reports will grow 11 percent—much faster than average for other jobs—through 2028. Illinois expects to see job growth of 13 percent.

Contact Coyne College today to get the HVAC training you need to succeed. It’s going to be a hot summer. Learn about some HVAC summer preparation tips.