Anoka County history: History of modern air conditioner

Several older ladies were complaining about the excessive heat that we’ve had this summer.

One remarked that she remembered the summers of the Dust Bowl years, when one could literally fry an egg on the sidewalk.

And people did exactly that, probably because Wii  had not yet been invented and they were hard up for entertainment.

She went on to say that the only relief was to go to the movies because the theater was air conditioned.

Air conditioning was not yet common, and homes, offices, retail stores and churches were dependent on shade, and open windows to catch whatever breeze was available.

Air conditioning, as we know it today, developed as scientists struggled with the effects of moisture in the manufacturing process.

They were not really looking to chill anything, but rather to control air humidity in factories where machinery was affected.

In 1902, the first modern electrical air conditioning unit was invented by Willis Haviland Carrier in Buffalo, N.Y.

He worked for a large printing concern, and high summer humidity was often a problem.

Paper would swell with moisture, unevenly of course, and would become misaligned in the huge presses.

Ink was liquid based and took longer to dry in humid air, causing smears and ink transfer from page to page.

Carrier knew that he could use steam to heat objects, and he reasoned that by reversing the process, he could lower the temperature, and therefore lower the amount of humidity that the air could hold.

Instead of forcing air over steam coils, he blew air over coils filled with cold water.

The lower heat and humidity improved the manufacturing process.  Human comfort was just a by-product.

A few years later, in 1906, Stuart W. Cramer, of Charlotte, N.C., wanted the opposite effect.

He wanted more moisture in the air in his textile plant to reduce fiber dust and lint that built up on the machinery.

By increasing ventilation over water surfaces, he increased the water that was evaporated into the air in his factory, and cooling was achieved as a result.

He invented the first evaporative cooling system, or “swamp cooler.”

He coined the term “air conditioning” to distinguish it from water conditioning, which was another process in textile manufacturing.

Notice that once again, the object was humidity control; not human comfort.

But Carrier was no fool! He knew there were applications in industry for his technology.

Carrier adopted Cramer’s term and the Carrier Air Conditioning Company was born in 1914.

He and a few fellow engineers pooled their life savings, $32,000, to get things started.

They did well, despite the outbreak of World War I, and they prospered during the 1920s.

The stock market crash in 1929 was a setback, but it only made Carrier expand his horizons into international markets in Korea and Japan.

It wasn’t until the post World War II era, that air conditioning was adapted to residential buildings on a major scale.

Carrier, at age 73, died in 1950.

Editor’s note: Maria King is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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