Waiting for a train leads to a cool idea

By Leigh Morris
Our Place in History
It has been hailed as the greatest single invention of the 20th century – a device that revolutionized the way we work, where we live and the way we spend our leisure time.
One of the first modern attempts to create a machine that would cool indoor air was made in the 1830s by John Gorrie, M.D., in Apalachicola, Fla. Looking for a way to bring relief to patients suffering from yellow fever and malaria, Gorrie devised a machine that blew air over a bucket of ice. Known as an evaporative cooler (or swamp cooler), the device did cool, but it also increased the humidity level.

The real breakthrough in cooling was made in 1902 by Willis Haviland Carrier, a new $10-a-week employee at the Buffalo Forge Co. Carrier, who in 1901 earned a master’s degree in engineering from Cornell University, created his “Apparatus for Treating Air” to control the temperature and humidity for the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y. Carrier received a patent for his invention in 1906.
Though Carrier did not invent what would become known as indoor air conditioning, his was the first practical machine and thus became known as the “father of air conditioning.”
In 1911, Carrier revealed the key to his success – the Rational Psychrometric Formulae, which provided the solution in controlling both temperature and humidity. According to various sources, Carrier was waiting for a train one foggy evening. Carrier pondered the temperature and humidity problem. Before the train arrived, Carrier is said to have figured out a way to control humidity.
Whether or not it happened exactly that way, Carrier’s genius guaranteed the eventual near universal adoption of air conditioning. Joined by six engineers, Carrier formed the Carrier Engineering Corporation in 1915. The fledging company began with $35,000 in working capital.
In 1921, Carrier patented the centrifugal chiller, a compressor that made it practical to cool large spaces. In addition, his invention made it possible to sharply reduce the size of air conditioners.
In 1924, air conditioners moved beyond the factory when Carrier installed three units in Detroit’s J.L. Hudson department store. The following year, air conditioning was installed in New York City’s Rivoli Theater. Soon, movie theaters throughout the country were ordering air conditioners as a way to draw crowds during the summer months. Department stores, large restaurants, passenger trains and office buildings began to follow suit. The U.S. House of Representatives installed air conditioning in 1928.
Carrier’s Weathermaker, the first practical home air conditioner, was introduced in 1928. The onset of the Great Depression followed by World War II caused sales to tank, delaying the widespread adoption of residential air conditioning until the 1950s.
So when you crank up the air conditioner to escape this summer’s heat and humidity, take a moment to thank the coolest inventor of them all – Willis Haviland Carrier.