A Look at the Surprisingly Rich History of Air Conditioning
Americans are heavily dependent on their heating and cooling systems to make their homes more comfortable to live in. Without our furnaces and home air conditioning systems, the most extreme seasons of the year — summer and winter — become downright unbearable.
But humans haven’t always had the technology that we have today. Heating and cooling services are a shockingly recent invention. How did we keep indoor temperatures from getting too hot or too cold without modern-day machinery? The innovations our ancestors made to keep their living spaces cooled down will amaze you.
For brevity’s sake, we’ve decided to focus solely on the role that air conditioning and cooling has played throughout history rather than including both heating and cooling systems. Here’s a brief look at the long, surprisingly fascinating history of air conditioning — past, present and future:
The Roman Empire: 27 BC – 476 AD
The Romans are known for making a number of amazing engineering advances, from aqueducts to bridges. Many of their inventions influence the technologies we use today! The wealthiest classes would use water from the empire’s highly-advanced aqueduct system to circulate cool water through the walls of their homes. In modern times, this cooling method, called radiant cooling, is still in use throughout much of Europe.
Not all Romans were as technologically-savvy as this, however. The emperor Elagabalus famously ordered a mountain of imported snow to be built in his villa’s garden in the third century AD as a way to stay cool in the summer. The snow had to be brought to his home from the mountains via a train of donkeys and was remarkably inefficient — but when you’re the emperor of the Roman Empire, the efficiency of your heating and cooling systems probably isn’t a huge concern.
The lower classes of Ancient Rome usually had no choice but to bear the scorching Mediterranean sun, and not all members of the educated upper classes embraced the concept of cooling their homes. In his writings, famed philosopher Seneca would mock Rome’s “skinny youths” who chose to eat snow to stay cool rather than suffer through the heat like a real Roman would.
anchient Romans used towers referred to "Wind Catchers" (pictured above) to generate ventilation
The Modern Air Conditioner: 1902
After the fall of the Roman Empire, these primitive air conditioning technologies largely fell out of fashion in the Western world until the time of the Industrial Revolution. During the Middle Ages, people (usually women) resorted to hand fans to stay cool, especially in China, where these fans had been in use for at least three millenia. In the Middle East, architects designed buildings with windows that faced away from the sun; in larger buildings, they created wind towers that captured breezes and circulated them throughout the building’s interior.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the growth of a wealthy industrial class in the U.S. led to an influx of new inventions, including the first modern-day heating and cooling systems. Nikola Tesla’s invention of alternating current motors made it possible to develop oscillating fans; by 1902, 25-year-old engineer Willis Carrier had successfully developed the very first modern air conditioning system.
In 1903, the New York Stock Exchange building became one of the first American structures to have one of these air conditioners installed.
Expansion of Commercial Air Conditioning: 1920 – 1940
Carrier’s invention rapidly spread to most commercial buildings throughout the 1920s and 30s. Department stores, railway cars, offices and more workplaces now had a way to keep workers cool during the summer months, giving a huge boost to their productivity. Because the movie theater made its debut around the same time, people flocked to these air-conditioned theaters, setting up a trend of summer blockbusters that continues today.
Residential air conditioning gains popularity: 1960 – Present
Most commercial buildings were outfitted with heating and cooling systems throughout the first half of the century, but the vast majority of Americans still had no cooling in their homes — by as late as 1965, a mere 10% of homes had an air conditioning system. Adoption of this technology saw its most rapid period of growth in the decades following World War II — getting an air conditioner was just one of the many ways for suburbanites to “keep up with the Joneses.”
By 2007, with the gradual introduction of more affordable and accessible air conditioning systems, the percentage of American homes that had air conditioning had skyrocketed to 86%. This has encouraged a major population shift to southern cities in hot, humid climates — a shift that could have profound socioeconomic effects lasting far into the future.
Air conditioning in cars also became more widely-adapted during the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1969, just 54% of newly-made automobiles came with air conditioning; today, it’s exceedingly rare to see a car that hasn’t been built with an air conditioning system.
Today, the American heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) industry is worth an incredible $71 billion, employing some 300,000 people. Growth is steady — from 2009 to 2014, the industry grew by about 4.1% each year.
As air-conditioning adoption is now nearly universal, Americans are searching for new ways to make their air conditioning systems more energy-efficient — and ultimately friendlier to the environment. The U.S. Department of Energy has implemented an increasingly strict set of energy-efficiency standards over the last several years, forcing manufacturers to build systems that consume less energy and use fewer chemicals that deplete the ozone layer and contribute to global climate change, such as Freon. Energy-efficient air conditioning isn’t just beneficial to the environment; it saves consumers millions of dollars in utility expenses each year, as well.
Air conditioning has changed the way we design our homes and buildings and is contributing to significant patterns of migration throughout the country. Once considered a luxury that was only accessible to the very wealthy, air conditioning is now a basic necessity for our quality of life.
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