Why Did We Invent the Air Conditioner: An Invention That Changed the Course of History


Man has always tried to control the elements of nature. No, we are not talking about the plot of Jurassic Park here, but that’s how it has always been. Sitting at the top of the food chain, the human being has always desired to control nature and establish itself as the greatest force on the planet. One such way in which man took control of nature was by the invention of the air conditioner.

The invention of air conditioning has brought a monumental change in the way our modern day lifestyles are. Let us take a look at how we gradually came to inventing the AC, and what changes have come in our lifestyle since then.

God and His Control Over Weather

As recently as a millennium ago, man believed that God controlled the weather. It was his wrath that brought the extreme cold and extreme heat, and it was his love that brought rain and spring. The sun shone when the Gods were happy, and the dark clouds took over, and thunder struck when They were angry.

Today, while man still does not have much of a control over the external weather, he now controls the climate inside his room by as much as clicking a button! Air Conditioners have improved the quality of life. If someone from the year 1017 was to see you do this today, he would believe you to be God.

From the Roman Empire to the 1800s

Roman kings would send slaves to fetch snow and keep it in their gardens – when the wind blew, it would cross the snow and get cooled when it came inside. Not a permanent solution, but still an ingenious one for the times. Boston’s Frederic Tudor too, in the 1800s, brought ice from New England during winter, and insulated it in sawdust to be used during the summers! Air Conditioners were about a hundred years away, but man has always wanted to control the climate.

There was however, one major flaw – as water pollution increased, the melting of ice began to release an unpleasant smell that was bothering a large number of users sitting in the audience.

1902: Air Conditioners Invented For Industrial Use

Willis Carrier, an engineer with Buffalo Forge was contacted by Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing company. The printing company was frustrated that the humidity was causing the paper to expand and contract between print runs, causing a misalignment in the print. Carrier finally came to a conclusion that when air is circulated over coils that chilled by compressed ammonia, they tend to maintain a constant humidity of 55%. And thus, the Air Conditioner was invented.

The Air Conditioner was a solution to multiple problems. Gillette corporation too was facing a problem with humidity – their blades were being rusted. The Air Conditioner solved this problem for Gillette. Flour Mills too, found it useful.

1906: Air Conditioners: From Industrial Use to Providing Comfort 

Carrier knew they have struck gold. The company quickly moved from making Air Conditioners for industrial uses and expanded their business into the world of ‘comfort’ . They began contacting theaters and other such public places to install air conditioning to provide comfort. In those days, movie theaters used to shut down in summers due to heat. By the 1920s, air conditioned movie theaters were becoming very popular, attracting large crowds.

1900-1980s: Computers, Architecture, Summer Blockbusters

As we mentioned earlier, theaters used to be shut down for summers. However, with the air conditioner now playing a vital role in drawing crowds, more and more viewers began attending movies during the summer, to get some relief from the heat! This led to movies coming out in the summer time drawing more money and fuller houses. Summer Blockbusters were suddenly a thing.

Another major problem that Air Conditioning solved was that related to computers. In the early days of computers, a weather too hot or too damp would lead to computers shutting down. Thanks to Carrier’s ‘Weathermaker’, however, the temperature was kept at an ideal level to ensure the systems are up and running. If you look at this from today’s point of view, servers that power the internet are all heavily guarded by air conditioners, ensuring they remain cool and function properly. That device which was made for a printing press in the 1900s now helps run the internet!

Another major change came to architecture. Buildings till the 1900s were built in a way that they would facilitate better air flow and had high ceilings  and windows faced away from the sun. All these glass-tinted skyscrapers that you see in your city’s skyline would have been impossible to live in had it not been for the Air Conditioner.

1980s: How Air Conditioning Helped Ronald Reagan Win

Let’s not take this at face value, but Air Conditioners were indeed one of the factors for Reagan’s win. A popular theory from Steve Johnson indicates that when conservative retirees started to migrate south en masse, thanks to the air conditioners, the vote banks shifted and the electoral colleges were realigned. This migration – happened due to Air Conditioners.

Ronald Reagan

By the 1980s over 50% of the world’s air conditioners were in the US, and even the southern parts were now fit to live in during summer. This ‘Sun Belt’ bloc of electoral voters would never have existed had it not been for the air conditioner.

The Air Conditioner Over the Years

Over the years, leading up to and in to the 2000s and 2010s, air conditioners have become a global sensation and developing nations like India and Brazil have begun adapting them en masse. It has been found that there is a direct link between air conditioning and productivity. Human productivity has been observed to peak between 18 to 22 degrees Celsius.

The invention of the air conditioner, which might seem an everyday device today, has been a process that led to many changes in the course of history! A device that shaped our present. Keep this in mind the next time you adjust your temperature.