A century of AC? No sweat

SUN JOURNAL

Air conditioning: It took a lot longer than mastering fire, but controlling indoor temperature and humidity has changed the shape of our world.

July 31, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Turn off your air conditioner. That's right. Turn it off and go outside any day when the temperature is in the 90s and the heavy, humid summer air is as thick as warm Jell-O.

Then you'll begin to understand why it is worth noting the breakthrough development 100 years ago this summer of one of the great inventions of our time - air conditioning.

While it probably ranks below indoor plumbing, it still has left a profound and immeasurable stamp on modern life, aiding the development of other technologies, changing our landscape and the way we relate to the world around us.

"We call it a transformative type technology of the 20th century," says Chrysanthe B. Broikos, curator of the National Building Museum in Washington. "Modern life, certainly modern life in America, would not be possible without it."

Imagine life without air conditioning? No shopping malls, no indoor stadiums, no movie theaters with terraced seating. No rooms of super computers kept cool.

You could, however, still buy a cold beer and two scoops of your favorite ice cream. That's because mechanical refrigeration has been in use since the late 1800s. But who wants to live, work or shop in a refrigerator?

The riddle of how to cool a building and control its temperature and humidity confounded humankind for aeons.

People used to sleep outdoors on hot summer nights, and some wax romantic about those days. In reality they were escaping oven-like situations that still prove deadly. More than two dozen people have died in Maryland of heat-related causes in the past month.

In the 19th century, there were primitive cooling methods such as placing a fan behind a block of ice, methods that were, well, primitive. Engineers began to make breakthroughs in the second half of that century, first with mechanical refrigeration in the food industry.

Merritt Ierley, author of The Comforts of Home: The American House and the Evolution of Modern Convenience, points to 1881 as the beginning of air conditioning. A team of doctors and navy engineers hit upon a way to keep mortally wounded President James A. Garfield comfortable that summer in the White House.

Using plans for an "air cooling apparatus" patented that year by Ralph S. Jennings of Baltimore, they were able to cool the president's room by using terrycloth cylinders saturated with ice water. The downside was that the process increased the room's humidity and required more than 4 tons of ice each day.

"What they are hitting on here is the essence of air conditioning as we know it," says Ierley. "For the first time they knew what they wanted to do. They hadn't done it yet, but they knew that they wanted to control the humidity and the temperature. That's why I think of this as the real turning point."

To hear the people at Carrier Corp. tell it, the age of cool really begins with company founder Willis H. Carrier. They even have an ostensible date: July 17, 1902. That's when Carrier, then a $10-a-week engineer for Buffalo Forge Co., submitted his plans for a system to control the humidity at the Sackett-Wilhelm printing plant in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The company was having problems with its four-color printing because the humidity kept changing the shape of the paper. Carrier, 25 years old at the time and a year out of graduate school at Cornell University, searched for a solution.

By figuring out a way to control the humidity inside the plant, Carrier took another step toward having climate-controlled environments and built on the work 20 years earlier on the relationship between temperature and humidity.

"That principle may have been known to people intuitively on some level, but it had never been applied on a practical level," says Broikos.

Credit for the phrase air conditioner goes to Stuart W. Cramer, a textile engineer. He was investigating ways to add moisture to the air in textile mills, to "condition" the air and eliminate the static electricity that built up among the fibers.

By 1907, Carrier Air Conditioning Corp. was formed as a subsidiary of Buffalo Forge Co. in Buffalo, N.Y. Seven years later, with World War I erupting in Europe, Buffalo Forge went down to its core business and cut out Carrier. The engineer and six others pooled their life savings - $32,600 - to form the Carrier Engineering Corp.

"In 1902 he didn't set out to invent anything. He was just trying to solve a problem," says Jon Shaw, head of Carrier's corporate communications. "He was a very humble person. ... As a result, he's probably not as famous today as Bell or Ford because he did not seek that spotlight."

For years the advancements were largely commercial: fabric mills in the South, printing factories, movie theaters and offices. In 1924, the J.L. Hudson department store in Detroit put an air-conditioning system in its bargain basement.

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