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Oct 24, 2013

From Igloos to Air Conditioning

Few inventions can claim the impact of Willis Haviland Carrier’s most famous one. His name might not sound familiar to you, but you have him to thank if you've ever enjoyed air-conditioning on a sweltering day.

Willis Carrier was born in 1876 in Angola, New York, a village south of Buffalo on Lake Erie. Carrier displayed a keen intelligence throughout his school years. One concept he struggled with, however, was fractions. Fortunately, his mother came up with an idea: She explained fractions to him using apple slices. Carrier, a humble man, would always credit that lesson with showing him how to find solutions by looking at problems in new ways.

Carrier attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, on a scholarship; he majored in electrical engineering. After graduating in 1901, he found employment at the Buffalo Forge Company, a business that manufactured blacksmithing equipment, drilling machines, pumps, and steam engines. There he worked as a research engineer. One day in 1902, his supervisors gave him a tricky issue to consider. Sackett & Wilhelms, a Brooklyn printing company, found that the images they produced were often distorted during hot, humid times of the year. That kind of weather caused their sheets of paper to expand and shrink as various colors of ink were being applied. The printers wondered: Could a mechanism be devised to make the air inside their building cooler and dryer?

Carrier spent weeks puzzling over this assignment. One day, he found himself at a train station in Pittsburgh, standing on a platform and watching mist rise. An idea struck him. Carrier began building soon afterwards a machine he called the “Apparatus for Treating Air.” This gadget blew air and expelled water simultaneously. Those two functions worked in concert to cool a room and maintain a consistent level of humidity. It was a technological breakthrough, a marvel.

Carrier spent two more years perfecting his apparatus before applying for a patent. The U.S. government issued that patent on January 2, 1906. From the start, demand for air conditioning was robust. All kinds of professional fields had use for it. And so the Buffalo Forge Company spun off a new company, the Carrier Air Conditioning Company, in 1908. At Carrier Air Conditioning, Carrier led research and engineering; he was also the vice-president. In 1914, the year Buffalo Forge decided to become strictly a manufacturing outfit, Carrier and six colleagues launched a company of their own: Carrier Engineering Corporation.

Department stores and movie theaters comprised much of Carrier Engineering’s clientele during its first two decades. Demand for air conditioning fell during the 1930s and 1940s, however, due to the Depression and World War II. Even so, Carrier Engineering Corporation stayed afloat. In part, that was because the company also sold an original system of refrigeration: the centrifugal compressor, capable of cooling vast interior spaces.

Carrier survived a heart attack in 1948. He decided then to retire. On October 7, 1950, Carrier died in New York City at age 73. Sadly, he did not live to see air conditioners become standard pieces of equipment in homes worldwide. But Willis Carrier’s company endured. In fact, the Carrier Corporation is still in business, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation.