History of Air Conditioning

An AC Air Compressor from the 1939 New York World's Fair
An AC Air Compressor from the 1939 New York World's Fair


Air conditioning makes modern life livable. Hospitals, data centers, businesses, and homes—it’s hard to imagine any of these without the comforts of climate control. In fact, the Energy Information Administration estimates that 48 percent of energy consumption in the United States is from climate control. But what is the history of this invention that’s so integral to modern life?

For most of history, people were content to fan themselves. Anything would suffice: a hand, a leaf, or perhaps even a handheld fan, the oldest of which date to 4th-century BC Greece. A Chinese inventor, Ding Huan, created the first example of a rotary fan in the 2nd-century AD. It was a bit more labor intensive than our modern ceiling fans, as this one was powered by humans! 

Most modern ACs rely on evaporative cooling. The ancient world knew this as well. Ancient Egyptians, for example, hung wet reeds in windows to take advantage of a cooling cross breeze. The wealthy in Ancient Rome circulated water from aqueducts in the walls of their homes.

However, our modern world owes a great deal to the inventors and engineers of the 19th and early-20th centuries. In the 1840s, Dr. John Gorrie of Florida thought that cooling could prevent malaria and make hospitals more comfortable. He started out by shipping ice from the frozen lakes of the north into Florida’s hot and humid hospitals. In 1851, however, he created a machine that could create ice using a compressor powered by steam, horse power, or water. Though his invention wasn’t successful, it was the first example of a modern AC.

A young engineer by the name of Willis Carrier built the first electrical air conditioner in 1902. He made a system that could either humidify or dehumidify by blowing air over heated or cooled water. His unit was built to control the humidity at Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn. The humidity was causing their magazine pages to wrinkle!

It wasn’t long before Willis went out with a few other engineers and started his own company, the Carrier Engineering Corporation. In 1922, the company debuted a new air conditioner for consumers. They put their system in the Rivoli Theater in New York’s Times Square. Soon, hot and weary New Yorkers flocked to the theater for the comforts of a cool movie.

These systems were still too large and bulky for home use. This changed in the 1930s when Frigidaire built a room cooler the size of a radio cabinet. But the real change came in 1932, when inventors H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman filed a patent for the first window AC—a small unit that could be placed on a window ledge. The engineer Henry Galson improved on this design, and by 1947, 43,000 of these window ACs were sold across America. 

Air conditioning has since become a staple of modern life. In fact, a Lawrence Berkeley National Lab study has predicted that the world will install 700 million air conditioners by 2030! Some of these will be central systems, but most them will be window ACs and mini-split (ductless) systems.

If climate control accounts for 48 percent of energy usage and 700 million ACs will be up and running in the next 13 years, then it makes sense to start thinking about how AC usage can be made more energy efficient. Flair was started with these solutions in mind. Our Pucks and Smart Vents help make AC usage more energy efficient, bringing a technology born in the 19th and 20th centuries into the future.