The Father of Cool - Willis Haviland Carrier and Air Conditioning

Willis Carrier and the First Air Conditioner

Toddler (21-24 months) feeling air coming from room airconditioner
Stephanie Rausser/Getty Images

"I fish only for edible fish, and hunt only for edible game, even in the laboratory," Willis Haviland Carrier once said about being practical.

In 1902, only one year after Willis Carrier graduated from Cornell University with a Masters in Engineering, his first air conditioning unit was in operation. This made one Brooklyn printing plant owner very happy. Fluctuations in heat and humidity in his plant kept causing the dimensions of his printing paper to alter and create misalignment of the colored inks.

The new air conditioning machine created a stable environment and, as a result, aligned four-color printing became possible – all thanks to Carrier, a new employee at the Buffalo Forge Company who started working for a salary of only $10 a week.

The “Apparatus for Treating Air”

The “Apparatus for Treating Air” was the first of several patents awarded to Willis Carrier in 1906. Although he’s recognized as the “father of air conditioning,” the term “air conditioning” actually originated with textile engineer Stuart H. Cramer. Cramer used the phrase “air conditioning” in a 1906 patent claim he filed for a device that added water vapor to the air in textile plants to condition the yarn.

Carrier disclosed his basic Rational Psychrometric Formulae to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1911. The formula still stands today as the basis in all fundamental calculations for the air conditioning industry.

Carrier said he received his “flash of genius” while he was waiting for a train on a foggy night. He was thinking about the problem of temperature and humidity control and by the time the train arrived, he said he had an understanding of the relationship between temperature, humidity and dew point.

The Carrier Engineering Corporation

Industries flourished with this new ability to control the temperature and humidity levels during and after production. Film, tobacco, processed meats, medical capsules, textiles and other products gained significant improvements as a result. Willis Carrier and six other engineers formed the Carrier Engineering Corporation in 1915 with starting capital of $35,000. In 1995, sales topped $5 billion. The company was dedicated to improving air conditioning technology.

The Centrifugal Refrigeration Machine

Carrier patented the centrifugal refrigeration machine in 1921. This "centrifugal chiller" was the first practical method for air conditioning large spaces. Previous refrigeration machines used reciprocating piston-driven compressors to pump refrigerant through the system, which was often toxic and flammable ammonia. Carrier designed a centrifugal compressor similar to the centrifugal turning blades of a water pump. The result was a safer and more efficient chiller.

Consumer Comfort

Cooling for human comfort rather than industrial need began in 1924 when three Carrier centrifugal chillers were installed in the J.L. Hudson Department Store in Detroit, Michigan.

Shoppers flocked to the “air conditioned” store. This boom in human cooling spread from department stores to the movie theaters, most notably the Rivoli Theater in New York whose summer film business skyrocketed when it heavily advertised cool comfort. Demand increased for smaller units and the Carrier Company obliged.

Residential Air Conditioners

Willis Carrier developed the first residential “Weathermaker” in 1928, an air conditioner for private home use. The Great Depression and World War II slowed the non-industrial use of air conditioning, but consumer sales rebounded after the war. The rest is cool and comfortable history.