Monday, July 17, 2017

Happy 115th: 15 Pictures the Tell the Story of Modern Air Conditioning

It was 115 years ago today that Willis Haviland Carrier signed a set of mechanical drawings which, soon after, became the world's first modern air-conditioning system.  And it was five years ago that we published Weathermakers to the World, telling the story of Dr. Carrier and his namesake company.

Below, I've chosen 15 pictures that tell the story of modern air conditioning.

1. Most of us don't remember the world "before cool," and may only experience it occasionally on a dash between our air-conditioned car and our air-conditioned office.  One rule-of-thumb illustrates the heartiness of our great-grandparents, however: Only when the temperature plus 20 percent of the humidity equaled 100 did everyone give up and go home.  So, 80F plus 90% humidity = 98. . .keep working!

I especially like this ad, which was one in a series used by Carrier, because it shows young Willis (in the lower left-hand corner) hard at work on his new invention.
2. This image shows a portion of Willis Carrier's 1902 plans for the world's first modern air-conditioner, designed for the Sackett & Wilhelm printing plant in Brooklyn, New York.  S&W printed large runs of Judge magazine but could experience production delays when paper expanded and shrank in Brooklyn's heat and humidity.  The solution proposed by Carrier, forcing warm air across cold pipes, was intended to dry the air when it left condensate behind on the cold metal.  As a bonus, the temperature of the air also dropped--but the goal for S&W, and for the first generation of industrial production, was to control humidity.  As our mothers used to tell us, "It ain't the heat. . . ."
3. I have a lot of favorite stories from Weathermakers, but this might be the best.  It was on a foggy evening in 1903, on a train platform in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (captured here by Ripley in 1939), that Willis Carrier conceived the idea that he could dry-out warm, humid air by passing it through water--specifically, fine droplets of a cold water spray.  This spray could create a far larger surface area for condensate than metal pipes, and had the distinct advantages of cleaning the air of dust, and avoiding the nuisance of rusty pipes.  

To this day, it's difficult to convince some people that a good way to dry air is to force it through water.

If you happen to be in Pittsburgh and want to visit the spot of Carrier's famous insight, have a meal at the Grand Concourse Restaurant at Station Square.

4. This is Willis Carrier's "Rationale Psychrometric Formulae," sometimes called the Magna Charter of air conditioning.  Carrier presented it in 1911 to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.  The document outlined calculations and practical lab-testing that repaired and standardized the basic mathematical method of psychrometric calculation.  Paired with a second paper presented at the conference on the basics of building air-conditioning apparatus, Carrier laid out the fundamental intellectual capital of the fledgling air-conditioning industry.  Competitors suddenly had available a decade of hard work and even harder thinking.  It would be a little bit like Google laying out all of its search algorithms to inspire competition.

I believe this was the moment when Willis Carrier became the "Father of Air Conditioning."

5. Willis had six co-founders who formed Carrier Engineering Company in 1915.  The seven partners dug deep into their own pockets, borrowed from banks and one another, solicited Carrier's lawyer and (even) his dentist, and spun-out of Buffalo Forge under-capitalized and without a single customer, smack in the teeth of World War I.  Eighteen harrowing days later the team had its first contract, and turned a profit in their first year.  For chutzpah and drama, the founding of Carrier Engineering ranks with anything going on today in Silicon Valley.  

6. Until the mid-1920s, air conditioning worked its magic almost entirely on the factory floor.  "Process air" allowed year-round, high-speed production in industries that relied upon raw materials that changed with humidity--industries such as textile, pharmaceutical, and confectionery.  The ability to manufacture gel caps or even bake bread in any region and any climate, was one of the twentieth century's truly disruptive ideas.  As time went on, however, new innovations created smaller and less expensive air conditioning units, opening up markets for residential air conditioning.  

"Comfort air" had to be introduced to the wider public, however, and Carrier approached this marketing puzzle by addressing the needs of three specific consumer segments.  The first was department stores, and the first department store in the country to be cooled with modern air conditioning was J.L. Hudson in Detroit (demolished, unfortunately, in 1998).  My choice for picture, though, is this 1920s ad from Macy's in  New York.  It really captures the impact comfort air had on store patrons who understood, maybe for the first time in their lives, that they didn't have to suffer through New York's heat and humidity. 

7. The second step in introducing comfort air to the world was the railroad.  This is the dining car of the Martha Washington, a B&O day coach equipped with modern air conditioning for an April 1930 run.  The test was a smashing success.  Soon, air conditioning was being installed in the dining and sleeping cars of trains all over America, reaching upscale decision-makers who would begin to wonder why they could sleep comfortably while traveling from New York to Florida, but not in their own homes.
8. The third piece of the marketing puzzle was the big one, the move that introduced comfort air to the widest swath of the American public.  Movies had become America's number one pastime by the 1920s, but movie theaters could be unbearable in the hot, humid summer months.  Esten Bolling, Carrier's brilliant Marketing executive, described in 1923 the efforts made by theater owners to meet the needs of patrons before modern air conditioning.  "There was a period," Bolling wrote, "when carloads of propeller-type fans were installed [which] did nothing except partly relieve the foul and heated air of the theatres by drawing in the dirty and nearly as hot, or hotter air from the outside."  Then, Bolling wrote, came the "Optical-Delusion Phase" when theater owners covered the front of their buildings with icicles and marble-dust snow.  In 1923, Carrier installed comfort air at Sid Grauman's Metropolitan Theater in Los Angles, and on Memorial Day 1925 unveiled comfort air at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway.  The picture I have chosen for this important phase of the development of comfort air, though, is from the Irvin Theater in Texas, where air conditioning got better billing than the feature film.

9. For those Americans who might have missed comfort air in department stores, trains, or movie theaters, Carrier's "Igloo or Tomorrow" exhibit at the 1939/40 New York World's Fair attracted 1.3 million visitors in the first hundred days, and 4 million overall.  In fact, Carrier air conditioning was at work all over the fairgrounds, "comfort cooling" the exhibits of Ford, Du Pont, Swift, Corning, and Coca Cola, and "process cooling" the all-important wine cellar of the French Pavilion.

10. Carrier's success during World War II in meeting wartime contracts earned the company an "E" award plus five stars for excellence--one of only 14 companies to receive this distinction.  Carrier product was installed in airplane and instrument factories, and for food preservation onboard ships and on the battlefront.  A number of Carrier's early, large comfort installations--from Macy's (above), Tiffany & Co., Lord & Taylor, and Gimbels in New York--were reinstalled as process air to support wartime production in facilities like B. F. Goodrich in Texas and Pratt & Whitney in Kansas City.

11.  The war was over.  The Depression ended.  Soldiers returned home.  Babies were booming.  Suburbs were growing.  Dr. Carrier died in 1950, but part of his extensive legacy was a comfort-air industry ready to explode.  In 1951, air conditioning became a billion-dollar business.  Carrier's successor, CEO Cloud Wampler, believed that World War II "was responsible for at least a ten-year advance in the acceptance of air conditioning.  In short," he said, "the luxury tag was torn up and an investment tag substituted."  In 1948, Americans bought 74,000 air conditioners; in 1953, more than 1 million.  The Saturday Evening Post announced that "They're Trying to Make Summer Extinct."

12. This is a map showing the mean center of the United States population.  Since 1790, it has headed steadily westward.  But only since 1950 has it headed steadily southward.  In "The End of the Long Hot Summer," historian Raymond Arsenault writes that air conditioning in the American South reduced rates of semi-tropical diseases and led to declines in mortality, including fetal and infant mortality; "prolonged the lives of thousands of patients suffering from heart disease and respiratory disorders, increased the reliability and sophistication of micro-surgery, facilitated the institutionalization of public health, and aided the production of modern drugs such as penicillin."  In the 1960s, Arsenault added, "for the first time since the Civil War, the South experienced more in-migration than out-migration."  Some of this was certainly due to the success of the civil rights movement, "but it was also a by-product of air conditioning."  The New York Times declared America's 1970 national census "the Air-Conditioned Census."

13. In 1998, Dr. Willis H. Carrier was named by TIME magazine one of the 100 most influential business geniuses of the century, alongside Henry Ford, Ray Kroc, and Bill Gates.  In 1999, U.S. News & World Report named Carrier one of 25 Americans who shaped the modern era and "the coolest American of the century." The magazine added, "Carrier, the 'Father of Air Conditioning,' is the man who made the Sun Belt--as well as the factory, the movie theater, and the modern home--tolerable in summer.  In 2000, the National Academy of Engineering named air conditioning one of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century. 

14. Today, air conditioning is so ubiquitous that we forget how hard it continues to work keeping our world productive and comfortable.

15. Since it's the 115th anniversary, I limited myself to just 15 pictures to tell the story of modern air conditioning (though there are many more in Weathermakers to the World).  However, since this might be the very last chance, I wanted to add this picture of the Allegheny General Hospital "premie ward" in Pittsburgh, probably May or June 1914.  The world's first "air-conditioned babies" are shown.  In 1963, Carrier Corporation undertook a national search to see if they might be able to identify one of more of them.  Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful.  At this point, we'd be looking for a 103-year-old, born in Pittsburgh.  What are the chances?