Now, you can argue — and some of you have since July 17 — that Carrier did not invent air conditioning.
Make no bones about it, Carrier Corporation certainly did its homework and spread the word to the general public and media regarding July 17, 1902.
On that date, according to Jon Shaw, manager of Corporate Communications for Carrier, a 25-year-old mechanical engineer named Willis Carrier designed and installed the first scientific air conditioning system for Sackett-Wilhelms, a printing company in Brooklyn, NY.
“Not to put too fine a point on it, but to clarify, Willis Carrier submitted to the customer his design for the first modern air conditioning system on July 17, 1902,” said Shaw. “We don’t have the actual installation date, although we know it was installed at the Brooklyn printing plant shortly thereafter. That’s why we use July 17.”
Carrier made these facts known, which is why you may have heard about the 100th “birthday” of A/C on “ABC World News Tonight,” “Good Morning America,” and CNN, as well as the Washington Post, LA Times, and many other national newspapers. Making good use of marketing, Carrier also made sure to use July 17, 2002, to announce the dedication of its new Willis H. Carrier Academy at Grady Technical High School in Brooklyn. (See full story on page 9.) Naturally, Carrier talked about the new academy, but it was glad to report what the company’s founder did 100 years previously in Brooklyn.
SOME DISAGREEMENTIn truth, I did not think such news would create an uproar. Apparently, though, there are some who strongly object to the use of the word “invented.” As one reader noted, “I certainly don’t mean to disparage the significant contributions that Dr. Carrier has made relative to commercializing air conditioning. However, he certainly didn’t invent it.”
Like some historians, this reader gave credit to Dr. John Gorrie, who was issued patent No. 8080 on May 6, 1851, for the “first machine ever to be used for commercial refrigeration and air conditioning.” The News made note of Dr. Gorrie’s contributions to the industry in our “75 Years of Cooling” (April 30, 2001) issue. One could argue that Dr. Gorrie was the first to design, construct, and operate a refrigeration system for comfort cooling. What he did was create a compressed air refrigerating system for his hospital ward to ease the suffering of malaria patients.
Shaw was not about to slight Gorrie.
“He was one of those first people who attempted to control the indoor environment, and while he did receive a patent on an ice-making machine in 1851, it doesn’t appear he did anything else with it,” said Shaw. “By the 1880s, commercial refrigeration was an accepted practice in the southern U.S. Carrier, to our knowledge, did not use Gorrie as a basis for his 1902 design.”
CLEARING THE AIRMaybe the clarification should be to define what air conditioning is supposed to accomplish. At Sackett-Wilhelms 100 years ago, the printer was experiencing quality problems with color image because variances in heat and humidity kept changing the dimensions of the paper, causing misalignment of the colored inks. Dr. Carrier was able to stabilize the temperature and moisture in the air so the paper stayed the same size throughout the day.
“Until Carrier’s work in the summer of 1902, no one had succeeded in reducing indoor humidity and holding moisture content to a specified level,” said Shaw. “To our knowledge, Willis’ design was the first to address control over temperature, humidity, air circulation, and air quality [cleanliness], the four basic tenets of modern air conditioning. He further refined his 1902 invention and received a U.S. patent [No. 808897] on Jan. 2, 1906 for his ‘Apparatus for Treating Air.’”
The A/C debate can (and may) continue in a similar vein to the dispute over who discovered America. Was it Christopher Columbus? Leif Eriksson? Who?
I’ll ponder all questions inside the comfort of an air conditioned environment. Thank you, Dr. Willis Carrier. (Just know there are some who will pay homage elsewhere.)
Skaer is editor-in-chief. He can be reached at 248-244-6446; 248-362-0317 (fax); firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail).
Publication date: 07/29/2002