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June 12, 2005

A Forgotten Great American

John Hawkins has a post about the Greatest Americans of all time. Allow me to mention a forgotten great American, who didn't make anybody's list, without whom life would be very different all over the world.


The man is Willis Haviland Carrier, the father of air conditioning.

In 1902, fresh out of Cornell University and working as an engineer at Buffalo Forge Co., Carrier developed the world's first modern air conditioner, combining temperature and humidity control in one system, for a Brooklyn, NY, printing plant. He earned a patent for this system design in 1906. His air conditioner used a centrifugal system, under low pressure, to gather air through a filter and pass that air over coolant-filled coils. That cooled and dehumidified air was directed at its target location while warmer air around the motor was vented out of the location. The technology behind Carrier's air conditioner was patented in 1911 and is the basis for air conditioner technology available today.
The ability to control indoor temperatures has influenced almost every aspect of our daily lives. Think about it -- where we live, where we work, what we eat, what we wear, what we smell like, how we travel, our architecture, our modern healthcare, our life expectancy, food storage, what we read, how much leisure time we enjoy, even the existence of the computer you are reading this on -- all influenced by or made possible by air conditioning.
Look back for a moment to the world before the widespread use of refrigeration and air conditioning—a world that was still very much present well into the first decades of the 20th century. Only fresh foods that could be grown locally were available, and they had to be purchased and used on a daily basis. Meat was bought during the daily trip to the butcher's; the milkman made his rounds every morning. If you could afford weekly deliveries of ice blocks—harvested in the winter from frozen northern lakes—you could keep some perishable foods around for 2 or 3 days in an icebox. As for the nonexistence of air conditioning, it made summers in southern cities—and many northern ones—insufferable. The nation's capital was a virtual ghost town in the summer months. As late as the 1940s, the 60-story Woolworth Building and other skyscrapers in New York City were equipped with window awnings on every floor to keep direct sunlight from raising temperatures even higher than they already were. Inside the skyscrapers, ceiling and table fans kept the humid air from open windows at least moving around. Throughout the country, homes were built with natural cooling in mind. Ceilings were high, porches were deep and shaded, and windows were placed to take every possible advantage of cross-ventilation.

By the end of the century all that had changed. Fresh foods of all kinds were available just about anywhere in the country all year round—and what wasn't available fresh could be had in convenient frozen form, ready to pop into the microwave. The milkman was all but gone and forgotten, and the butcher now did his work behind a counter at the supermarket. Indeed, many families concentrated the entire week's food shopping into one trip to the market, stocking the refrigerator with perishables that would last a week or more. And on the air-conditioning side of the equation, just about every form of indoor space—office buildings, factories, hospitals, and homes—was climate-controlled and comfortable throughout the year, come heat wave or humidity. New homes looked quite different, with lower rooflines and ceilings, porches that were more for ornament than practicality, and architectural features such as large plate glass picture windows and sliding glass doors. Office buildings got a new look as well, with literally acres of glass stretching from street level to the skyscraping upper floors. Perhaps most significant of all, as a result of air conditioning, people started moving south, reversing a northward demographic trend that had continued through the first half of the century. Since 1940 the nation's fastest-growing states have been in the Southeast and the Southwest, regions that could not have supported large metropolitan communities before air conditioning made the summers tolerable.

Living in Sacramento, i should thank Mr. Carrier every day. Come to think of it, so should George W. Bush, as the great southern migration of the last few decades, which increased the electoral value of the red states, can be traced back to the widespread use of indoor air conditioning.

More: Jeff Harrell names another forgotten great American, Norman Borlaug. After reading Jeff's post, i'd have to agree.

Posted by annika, Jun. 12, 2005 |
Rubric: History


I am impressed that you would have Carrier on your list. A very insightful choice.

The two events that had the biggest effect on the South were the Civil War and the invention of air conditioning.

Annika, you are full of pleasant surprises.

Posted by: jake on Jun. 12, 2005

Thank you, Jake.

Posted by: annika on Jun. 12, 2005

Yes! And the time has come for us to share this technology with the British and the French, who have yet to recognize the existence of ice cubes, let alone air conditioning!


Posted by: Kevin Kim on Jun. 13, 2005

Hey! What happened to the Baywatch banner?

Posted by: Victor on Jun. 13, 2005

The future of air conditioning.

Posted by: scof on Jun. 13, 2005

Glad to see you mention Carrier...on hot days, I've often had the same thought.

There are billions of people without air conditioning, some of them in very hot places. As economic development permits some of these people to afford a/c for the first time, the impact on world energy demand is going to be pretty powerful.

Posted by: David Foster on Jun. 13, 2005

A very thoughtful choice, Annika. My family has often wished to canonize "whoever invented air conditioning" as a saint. Now I finally know who he is.


Posted by: Mark on Jun. 13, 2005

Hey Annika. That is an important post. I wonder, how did he accomplish that great feat without the benefits of affirmative action and diversity? Oh yes, that's right, by working hard and being smart as an individual.

On an unrelated note, I couldn't find you email so I thought I'd put this link down of a new post of mine you might like to link:


Posted by: Roach on Jun. 13, 2005

While you are at it, send the Frenchies and Brits some soap and deoderant to discover as well.

Having endured Sacramento during the summer months in a dark suit and tie, I can testify that Carrier deserves not only to be on the list; he deserves to head it.

There is nothing like Sacramento in the summer to make one want to settle in Southern California.

Posted by: shelly on Jun. 13, 2005

every now and then i intend be a wet blanket.
this is one of those times.
i think a lot of people mis-use the adjective "great" as a description of an american.
atticus finch was a great american.
yes he is/was real, and i also believe in santa claus.
neil armstrong was a great american. he came into service of his country when it needed his skills, and then went to private life.
truth be told, he was probably afraid of having family members kidnapped, ala lindbergh.
while mr. carrier's contribution to our way of life in this country is at the very pinnacle of achievement, i don't see him as a "great" american. i do agree with everything said about the influences to our behaviour, health, and everyday way of life. however, i.e., what would air conditioning and refrigeration be without electricity? that would make tessla a "greater" american, even though he was italian, i think.
i'll just pull this wet blankie over me and just log off.........

Posted by: louielouie on Jun. 13, 2005

Since you make some great points about the founder of my employer's sister company, I just thought I'd point out this link


Carrier had it's 100th anniversary in '02, and they still have some neat links on this page.

And louielouie, I agree that perhaps the term "great American" needs to be qualified, or perhaps better defined, but I do have one quibble. Tesla was born in Serbia, but emigrated to the U.S. and did most of his inventing here. I think that qualifies him as an American.

Posted by: Trevor on Jun. 13, 2005

"There is nothing like Sacramento in the summer to make one want to settle in Southern California."

There's six years on the Gulf Coast. Sacramento in the summer can't POSSIBLY touch New Orleans or Tallahassee for unmitigated hot humid hell. God bless Mr. Carrier. Someone once asked me what people did in New Orleans before A/C. The short answer that a hell of a lot of them died. There's a reason Tulane's med school is especially well-known in the field of tropical diseases.

Ah, hurricanes, earthquakes, pestilence, whatever: thank God I'm back in New England where the only freakish natural phenomena are the 8+ months of winter each year. ;-)

Posted by: Dave J on Jun. 13, 2005

I read the post without reading the comments and was inspired to write my own post about someone I consider a greater American than Carrier. Imagine my surprise when I read LouieLouie's comment. LOL

Tesla became a United States citizen in 1891, so I do believe that he qualifies as a Great American. His inventions created the modern world we enjoy today. Edison's most famous invention would be little more than a limited use curiosity without Tesla's alternating current generating/transmission system.

BTW, Trevor, Tesla was born in Croatia, not Serbia.

Posted by: delftsman3 on Jun. 17, 2005