The short answer to that question is Willis Carrier. Carrier was born November 26, 1876, in Angola, New York and earned an engineering degree from Cornell University in 1901. Interestingly enough, he struggled grasping principles of mathematics as a child. His mother, realizing his struggled with his lessons, began teaching him fractions by cutting whole apples into various-sized pieces. He later said this lesson was the most important one that he ever learned because it taught him the value of intelligent problem-solving. In 1902, according to the story, his eureka moment came to him on a foggy Pittsburgh train platform. As he stared through the mist there was a realization that he could dry air by passing it through water to create fog making it possible to produce air with specific amounts of moisture in it.
Perhaps the moment of revelation was inspired by his thoughts about air quality problems being experienced at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Company in Brooklyn, New York. Irregardless of the reasons or inspiration, on July 17, 1902, Carrier submitted drawings for what became recognized as the world’s first modern air conditioning system that controlled temperature, and humidity as well as air circulation and ventilation. After several more years of refinement and field testing, on January 2, 1906, Carrier was granted U.S. Patent 808,897 for the world’s first commercial conditioning equipment designed to humidify or dehumidify air by heating water for the first function and cooling it for the second.
In 1906 Carrier discovered that “constant depression of the dew point provided practically constant relative humidity.” On this discovery he based the design of an automatic control system, for which he filed a patent claim on May 17, 1907. A pivotal moment came in late 1914 when the Buffalo Forge Company, Carrier’s employer since 1902, made the decision to reorganize and focus solely on the manufacturing of forged goods. Carrier and six of the companies engineers, J. Irvine Lyle, Edward T. Murphy, L. Logan Lewis, Ernest T. Lyle, Frank Sanna, Alfred E. Stacey, Jr., and Edmund P. Heckel pooled together $32,000 and formed the Carrier Engineering Corporation on Jun 26, 1915.
With development of a centrifugal refrigeration unit, the company thrived as air conditioning was installed in stores, restaurants, taverns, and theaters. As an historic side note, well into the 1930’s theaters throughout the country showed their greatest profits of the year during the months of summer as they attracted customers with the promise of a respite from the heat.
As with most manufacturers, the onslaught of the Great Depression pushed Carrier to merge with other companies as a means of survival. Still, in spite of the harsh economic climate, the company relocated to Syracuse, New York with manufacturing facilities in several states. In 1930, Carrier started Toyo Carrier in Japan, and Samsung Applications in Korea. By 1938, Carrier was one of the largest employers in central New York. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Carrier’s igloo that gave visitors a peak at the future proved to be one of the most popular attractions during the sweltering heat.
For his many contributions to science and industry, Willis Carrier was awarded an honorary engineering degree by Lehigh University in 1935, and an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Alfred (NY) University in 1942. He was inducted posthumously in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1985, and the Buffalo Science Museum Hall of Fame in 2008.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America