In 1902, Willis Carrier invented the first modern electrical air conditioner. However, previous generations had their own ways of fighting the heat and keeping themselves cool during the summer. Throughout human history, people have come up with ingenious ways to stay cool during the hottest times of the year.
Geothermal and Water Cooling: Everything Old Is New Again
In almost every way, human technology has advanced by light-years since the Stone Age. However, state-of-the-art geothermal cooling relies on the same principle that our cave-dwelling ancestors understood millennia ago: it’s cooler underground. The earliest humans dug burrows or settled in existing caves in order to escape the heat above ground.
Water cooling is another piece of technology that we associate with modern air conditioning, but this idea is as old as the Pyramids—literally. The ancient Egyptians used to hang wet reeds in their windows so that the water would cool the breezes sweeping in from the hot Nile River valley.
The Invention of the Fan
Moving air has a greater cooling effect on the skin than stationary air, which is why breezes feel so delightful on hot days. Centuries ago, people realized they could make their own breezes with the use of hand-held fans. The invention of the fan cannot be traced to a single person or place, but archeologists have found evidence of hand-held fans as far back as the 2nd century BCE in China and the 4th century BCE in Greece.
Almost all modern air conditioners still rely on fans, albeit mechanical ones. Fans in modern air conditioners help to cool the air, and are also used to moved cool or warm air from one place to another through systems of ducts.
Going With the (Air) Flow: Victorian Ingenuity
The Victorian corset may have made breathing difficult, but in other ways the Victorians were masters of air flow. High ceilings, large recessed windows and covered porches all helped to maximize cross-ventilation in Victorian homes in order to improve natural cooling. High ceilings allow warm air to move upward, away from the people trying to stay cool. Covered porches and recessed windows use shade to cool outside air before breezes move this cooler air inside.
The Accidental Invention: Willis Carrier Modernizes Air Conditioning
Human ingenuity has repeatedly tackled head-on the problem of staying cool, and yet the modernization of air conditioning happened almost by accident. Willis Carrier, inventor of the first electrical air conditioner, was actually trying to find a way to control humidity in a printing plant. He decided to reverse the process of steam heating by passing air through cold coils , thereby causing the air to cool and the water in it to condense. It was a great way to control humidity, and an even better way to air condition a building.