Air Conditioning: A History

Even before the 20th century, primitive methods were used for cooling the indoor air.  

But when air conditioning was finally invented in the early 20th century, some politicians were still afraid to use it because they didn’t want the public to view them as weak.

Now, air conditioning is used in virtually all types of buildings, including residential homes, commercial businesses and industrial factories. You might be surprised by the history of how various civilisations tried cooling their indoor air.

Fans of Ancient China

About 3000 years ago, the ancient Chinese invented the world’s first fans. These were hand fans that folded and unfolded very neatly. Feathers and other thin materials were used for their construction.  

The fans were wide and lightweight, making them easy for people to wave in front of their faces. This pushed air toward them and created a cooling effect in the process. Even to this day, there are some locations in the world that still use these hand fans.

Middle Eastern Wind Towers

Ancient Middle Eastern architects were very wary of the sun. They understood the heating effect it caused on people indoors. For this reason, they constructed their buildings so that the windows did not face the direction of the sun.

In addition, they also constructed their tallest buildings with wind towers that were able to capture breezes in the air and circulate them inside. Many of these towers are still used in the region today.

Roman Aqueduct

The ancient Romans are credited as the first civilisation to try and cool indoor temperatures using liquid. Only rich Romans had the luxury of doing this.

They constructed a unique aqueduct system that channelled cool water from outside sources into their homes. The water actually flowed through their walls and was readily available to them whenever they needed to cool themselves. This technology existed as far back as the fourth century B.C.

Snow & Wind

In the third century A.D., toward the end of the Roman Empire’s reign over Europe, the Roman emperor Elagabalus made his slaves climb the nearby mountains and gather as much snow as they could carry.

Elagabalus ordered the snow placed in his garden so that the winds would blow cooler air into his home. He was perhaps the only person of this time period who could arrange such a thing.

Of course, he would have to keep sending his slaves to get more snow because it quickly melted. After this attempt, civilisations stopped attempting to condition indoor air for several centuries.

Evaporation Effect

In the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin and a professor named John Hadley figured out that evaporation creates a significant cooling effect. They realised that volatile liquids like alcohol were able to evaporate quicker than ordinary water.

In fact, the pair found the cooling effect to be so powerful that it froze water. About 70 years later, an inventor named Michael Faraday found a similar result after liquifying ammonia by compressing it.

Ice Maker

In the early 19th century, a Florida doctor developed the very first machine that makes ice. By utilising the power of compression, Dr John Gorrie was able to produce buckets of ice with the machine.

Air then would be blown onto the ice, which created a cooling effect like the one that Roman emperor Elagabalus attempted centuries prior with snow. Unfortunately, Gorrie didn’t have the financial support to bring his invention to the mainstream market.

First Air Conditioning System

In 1902, a young New York engineer named Willis Carrier developed a machine that would become the world’s first modern air conditioner. The invention involved cooling coils with water and then sending air through them to create the cooling effect.

The purpose of this invention was to prevent ink from turning runny on paper because of the heat. Of course, this air conditioner would evolve into an appliance for human comfort as the decades went on.  


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