Willis Haviland Carrier

I am sitting here pecking at the keyboard, in a cool house that was built with central air-conditioning in 1960. The thermometer outside the window is reporting 90-something. So, being history-oriented, I think about Willis Carrier.

He’s the guy who invented the modern air-conditioner, that would make people comfortable in weather like this, although he didn’t know that was what he was doing.

In 1902, Willis Haviland Carrier, a New York state farm boy, had just got an engineering degree from Cornell University, and was working for the Buffalo Forge Co.

The company had a client, the Sackett & Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Co., in New York City. It was the printer that produced the then wildly popular illustrated humor magazine, “Judge.”

The printer moved into a new plant in Brooklyn, and the building was so hot in summer, the paper on the presses would soak up moisture from the humid air and the ink wouldn’t dry.

The story of how the solution to the problem came to Willis (there’s always a story like that about inventors, isn’t there?) is that he was walking through a fog on a muggy day, and the idea struck him. The way to get rid of the humidity was to cool the air.

Willis devised a system of fans, ducts and perforated pipes that blew air over cold coils to produce a cool, drying effect. The rest is comfortably cool history.

The first air conditioners had problems with their use of ammonia, which made them a bit dangerous. But air-conditioning, Carrier-style, caught on fast in industry, and was installed in a hospital and some large buildings that needed to keep equipment cool.

People like to be cool, too. In 1903, the New York Stock Exchange became the first building with Carrier air-conditioning just for comfort.

Willis installed the first home air-conditioner in a mansion in Minneapolis in 1914. It was 7 feet tall, 6 feet wide and 20 feet long. It was big, bulky and expensive.

Aside from systems for factories, Willis designed residential air-conditioning for the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Astors.

Meanwhile, ordinary folks were still perspiring at home, fanning themselves and muttering, which works pretty well, but is annoying.

In 1915, Willis was joined by some engineers from the Buffalo Forge Co. to establish the Carrier Air Conditioning Co. By 1920, they figured out a safer substitute for the ammonia, and how to make the air-conditioning units smaller.

Soon, air conditioners were in department stores, office buildings, movie theaters, even railroad cars. The White House was air-conditioned in 1930.

In 1931, H. H. Schultz and J. Q. Sherman invented the first air-conditioner window units. They were expensive, but the ease of installation made them instantly popular.

I couldn’t find out much about Schultz and Sherman online. One would think there would be more information about a pair who had such a large impact on the window sills of the nation.

World War II slowed down the growth of air-conditioning, as industry turned to producing wartime things. But afterward, several companies began manufacturing air conditioners.

From the '50s on, air-conditioning became more and more a part of everyday life. Today, the industry estimates that more than 100 million American homes have air-conditioning.

If you’re one of the folks who don’t have air conditioning, feel free to use this newspaper to fan yourself.

Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at

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