Cold comfort

Willis Carrier, inventor of the first modern air conditioner. Photo courtesy of
Willis Carrier, inventor of the first modern air conditioner. Photo courtesy of

Thomas Edison. Benjamin Franklin. Marie Curie. Alexander Bell. Leonardo Da Vinci. Willis Carrier (who?).

You’re probably familiar with the first five inventors on this list, but the sixth is one that may not ring too many bells. In fact, I’d never heard of Willis Carrier until, curious, I decided to find out who was responsible for what I consider to be one of the most important inventions of my lifetime: the first modern air conditioner.

Anyone who knows me even slightly can tell you that I hate the heat. From the instant the thermometer hits 70 degrees some time during May to the sweltering 100+ degree days we’ve encountered over our humid, muggy, soupy New England summers, I complain about the heat. I actually begin complaining before it gets hot, just in anticipation.

I alway feels tired and sticky, and my hair frizzes, and I just never really feel good, unless I’m swathed in the air conditioner’s cooling emissions. Seriously, you don’t want to be anywhere near me if the power goes out and there’s no A/C.

Fortunately for me, in 1902, the aforementioned Willis Carrier, an American engineer, was tasked with the job of creating a system for treating the air at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to Printing company executives found that excessive humidity at their printing plant wreaked havoc on the color register used for fine, multicolor printing. By 1903, Carrier had designed a system of chilled coils that maintained a constant, and comfortable, humidity of 55 percent inside the printing plant.

By 1925, Carrier had designed and installed the first A/C to be used in movie theaters, where homeowners often sought relief from the summer heat until eventually, window units, and then central A/C, became part of the mainstream American home. While only 10 percent of American homes had air conditioning units in 1965, this number continued to climb slowly and steadily over the next decades, and by 2007, 86 percent of homes had A/C systems, according to the Carrier Corporation. As the advent of A/C spread, people moved out and migrated to some of the hottest U.S. regions, including Arizona, Nevada and Texas, thanks to air conditioning.

So the next time you head inside your comfortable air-conditioned home to escape the brutal summer heat and humidity, take a moment to remember Willis Carrier, my hero. And possibly yours.