The History Of Air Conditioning

Keeping your cool through the ages – from hand fans to electric air-conditioners

Back in the day, before you and I, before electricity, in fact, before most things, there weren’t many options to keep cool. It got hot and you suffered – simple. You could try hiding from the sun in your cave or under a tree, but you had to be on the constant lookout for giant creatures with a taste for humans and teeth to match.

Let’s face it, centuries ago, you were more concerned with staying alive than staying cool. If you were near a body of water, then good for you, you could jump in and cool off, depending on what predators lurked in their depths of course.

Hand fans

At some stage, someone started waving a branch with leaves around and realised the slight breeze provided them with some limited cooling comfort. And the first hand fan was invented. Not particularly user friendly and with limited effectiveness, it was still probably the original ancestor to today’s modern cooling systems.

The use of hand fans dates as far back as 3000 years to China, but they were labour intensive and the benefit didn’t always match the effort. If you could afford a professional waver (read slave), then you were sorted.

When in Rome

In ancient Rome, wealthy citizens devised their own cooling system. They would use their ahead-of-the-times aqueduct system to distribute water through the walls of their homes. This would give them some much needed respite when conducting their decadent lifestyles in scorching conditions.

Although, in this ultra-macho age, many people were mocked for trying to stay cool instead of taking it like a real Roman was supposed to.

When rich in DC

Back in the 1880s, then American president James Garfield, who was in ill health and struggling to deal with Washington D.C.’s harsh summer conditions, received the benefit of a rather crude home-made air conditioning system. It consisted of an awkward device, which blew air through cotton sheets doused in ice water. Apparently they used close to 225 000 kilos of ice in just two months.

The rise of electric powered fans

Electricity, and in particular, Nikola Tesla’s invention of alternating current motors, made all the difference and brought about the popularity of oscillating fans in the early 20th century. Not long after, a 25-year-old New York engineer, Willis Carrier, developed the first modern air-conditioning system, which delivered air through water-cooled coils. The purpose here was not so much to cool down humans but to lower the humidity levels in the printing plant where he worked.

This large and ungainly machine was improved upon, and in 1922 the centrifugal chiller was invented. This allowed engineers to add a central compressor to the mechanism, which drastically reduced the cooling unit’s size.

This system was used in American theatres during those unbearably hot summers, when people would flock to the cinemas to cool down. And so the term ‘summer blockbuster’ was coined.

By the 1930s, air conditioners were being used in retail department stores, on trains and in offices, often resulting in a significant increase in productivity levels. It took the residential market a good few decades to catch up. By 1965, only 10% of US homes used an air-conditioner, and by 2007 this number had reached 86%.

Air conditioners lead to a population shift

The rise in popularity of air conditioning systems has made many cities, once considered unbearable to live in because of the heat, more attractive places to live and work. This has resulted in major long- term population shifts among the US populace.

We’ve come a long way from suffering in the heat, and modern air conditioning systems have changed the way we work and live. These days, just make sure that when you do decide to buy or install an air-conditioning system, that it’s the right one for your home or business. You can do this by dealing with an established and reliable team of professionals.

Contact your local air-conditioning specialists and never be uncomfortable indoors again.