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The 100th Anniversary of the Carrier Air-Conditioning Company

By Frederik Nebeker

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's long-time prime minister, called air conditioning the most important invention of the 20th century. Though historians seldom place it at the top of the list, most would include it among the hundred most important inventions of the century. The person who did most to develop this technology was Willis Haviland Carrier.

Carrier was born in Angola, New York, on 26 November 1876, and attended Cornell University, where he received a master's degree in electrical engineering in 1901. He worked first on heating systems for industry, and then, in 1902, devised a cooling and dehumidifying system for a printing company. (The phrase "air conditioning," to describe such control of heat and humidity, was introduced in 1906.) Carrier continued to work on such systems, obtaining many patents. One of the most important was a patent, issued on 21 May 1907, on a control system for regulating temperature and humidity. That same year, Carrier established a company to manufacture air-conditioning systems.

Before the 1920s, Carrier and other companies, including General Electric and Frigidaire, provided air conditioning almost exclusively for factories. But in the 1920s and 1930s, air conditioning became common in cinemas and stores. Indeed, in the summer months, air conditioning became a major attraction of movie houses. As early as 1929, Frigidaire offered home air-conditioning, but residential use didn't catch on until the 1950s. Many movies from the 1950s, such as The Seven Year Itch (starring Marilyn Monroe) and Father's Little Dividend (starring Spencer Tracy), featured window air conditioners.

Lee Kuan Yew, in arguing for the importance of air conditioning, pointed out that formerly in tropical countries, work activity decreased as temperatures increased, and it is plausible that Singapore's dynamic economy the country is just one degree latitude away from the equator would not have been possible without air conditioning. Similarly, the rapid economic growth of Atlanta and much of the South in the 1970s and 1980s probably owed a great deal to air conditioning. In the 1991 movie Bugsy (starring Warren Beatty), it is just after World War II that Bugsy Siegel conceives a plan to develop Las Vegas as a resort town in the desert; it will be made possible, he says, because of the Hoover Dam (the source of the electricity) and air conditioning ("the wave of the future").

Air conditioning is unquestionably beneficial, as it has made life much more comfortable in much of the world, and it is a necessity in some types of manufacturing. It has, however, added to the cost of living and to energy consumption. One third of Singapore's electricity production goes to air conditioning. And air-conditioning refrigerants have probably had detrimental effect on the ozone layer. In the 1997 Woody Allen movie Deconstructing Harry, when the main character asks the devil, "What? You have air-conditioning in Hell?" He receives the answer: "Sure! [BLEEPS] up the ozone layer!"



Frederik Nebeker is Senior Research Historian at the IEEE History Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center's Web page at: www.ieee.org/organizations/history_center.

Copyright 2007 IEEE

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