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  • A Brief History of Air Conditioning

    Few of us know the long history of air conditioning. From its early days in second century China, it’s grown to become central to many of our everyday lives. It’s influences have reached into factory design, manufacturing, architecture, cinemas and even into medical research. It’s helped populate huge great swathes of middle America and made those of us who live with it, less able to live without it. 

    The influence of such an everyday appliance or system can’t be underestimated. We hope you enjoy our potted history of air conditioning, as we explore where it came from and what its future holds. 

    1. Where did air conditioning come from?

    The concept of air conditioning or the chilling of air goes way back into history in second century China and an inventor named Ding Huan. He invented a three metre diameter rotary fan that was human powered via a crank, with a series of interconnecting wheels. It was effective enough to cool an entire hall full of people, despite using only human power to create a breeze. 

    Ding Huan Rotary Fan with evaporative technology
    Ding Huan invented the Rotary Fan which used evaporative cooling technology

    Hand fans were very common throughout history and were replaced by electric fans during the early 1900s. Whilst these don’t actually cool the air, they produce a ‘wind chill’ by evaporating any moisture on your skin and giving the effect of lowering your body temperature. 

    Air cooling began being discussed in around 1758 by the American Inventor Benjamin Franklin who experimented with the evaporation of alcohol to reach freezing temperatures. It took some 70 years more for this to be developed into commercial refrigeration as, according to Wikipedia, it was in 1834 that the first working vapour compression refrigeration system was built.

    Prior to all of this however was a Floridian Doctor called John Gorrie, who, in 1842 developed a machine that made ice in order to cool the air for his patients. He was granted a patent to create a similar machine for homes and buildings, but sadly died before he could create it. He’s often described as the Father of Air Conditioning. 

    Before the invention of the air conditioner, these ice based cooling systems became the norm. So, when air conditioners were first introduced in 1903, their output ratings were measured based on how much ice you would need to create the same cooling power. This was known as the Ice Power Rating, but has now been replaced with a more logical BTU (British Thermal Unit) or KwH rating.

    2. The first commercial air conditioning system

    Perhaps the most surprising fact is that air conditioning wasn’t developed for people, but for paper. The inventor was Willis Haviland Carrier a 26 year old engineer from Buffalo, New York in 1902. 

    Willis Carrier
    Willis Carrier

    He worked at a publishing company and they were looking for a way to control humidity in the building to help ink dry faster and to stop paper expanding in the moist air, to allow them to increase production speeds. He called his invention the ‘Apparatus for Treating Air’ and finally received a patent for it four years later. It wasn’t until this patent was received that the term ‘air conditioning’ was first used, by a textile mill engineer from North Carolina called Stuart Cramer.

    3. An Office Air Conditioner

    The first office based system followed in 1903 in the New York Stock Exchange. The system designed by Alfred R. Wolff, used three ammonia-absorption machines, each of which had a cooling capability equivalent to a hundred and fifty tons of ice. According to New Yorker Magazine, he went onto become the leading air conditioning engineer in New York City. Whilst commercial systems may have been his everyday work, he also later designed three systems for residential properties too, for the Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Astor residences. As you can imagine, these didn’t come cheap.

    Stock Exchange Basement with Sturtevant fans driven by DC electric motors
    Stock Exchange Basement with Sturtevant fans driven by DC electric motors

    4. Residential Air Conditioning

    All of the early development in air conditioning took place in the United States and it was also here where the first domestic system appeared. It took another seven years in 1910, before it was installed in a domestic mansion in Minneapolis. The lucky recipient was Charles Gates, the son of the barbed wire inventor John Warne Gates. Sadly Charles was killed aged only 37 years in a hunting accident before he ever got to experience his newly cooled home. 

    This ‘domestic’ air conditioning system was 2.5 metres high, 2 metres wide, and over 6.5 metres long, but looking at the scale of the house it was effectively an industrial scale system.

    Charles Gates Mansion in Minneapolis
    Charles Gates Mansion in Minneapolis

    Because of the size and cost of the systems at the time, only incredibly wealthy people with huge homes could afford air conditioning systems. In those days, they cost anywhere from £6,000 to £30,000, which today would be a price more like £70,000 to £360,000.

    5. Developed by Cinemas

    The next big investor in air conditioning was the cinema or Movie Theater market in the US. To overcome a drop in numbers during the sunny summers in the warmer US states, they installed air conditioning as a way of attracting customers, to both cool down and enjoy a summer film. The term “Refrigerated Air” was often a highlighted in cinema advertisements, hoping to entice cinema goers who were seeking solace from the heat.

    Movie theaters and the development of air conditioning
    Movie theaters hastened the development of air conditioning

    During the 1930’s, this became so successful that it wasn’t long before the movie makers and cinema owners began to plan the launch of their biggest movies as their ‘Summer Blockbuster’ series. 

    6. If it’s good enough for the US President…

    Herbert Hoover, the 31st US president, served from March 1929 to March 1933 and in his first few months, he suffered under a blisteringly hot summer. He took the decision in 1929 to spend $30,000 on a new air conditioning system for the Oval Office, even though only months before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 happened, starting the Great Depression. So at least his four years in office were cool. 

    Herbert Hoover installed Air conditioning in the Oval Office
    Herbert Hoover installed Air conditioning in the Oval Office

    Herbert Hoover has never been rated as a popular US President, which could have been because of the time in which he served, but also as the son of a Quaker Blacksmith, perhaps more prudence could have been expected of him instead of such an extraordinary expenditure during such difficult times. 

    7. ….Then it’s good enough for the masses. 

    The first single-room air conditioner was invented in 1931 by H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman. It sat on a window ledge and vented through the window opening. It was initially eye-wateringly expensive, costing at the time nearly £300 against a typical weekly wage of around £20. 

    Air conditioning for the masses via HH Schultz
    Air conditioning for the masses via HH Schultz

    By the 1950’s these small domestic units were far more affordable and became a common sight across the United States. Once these cheaper units were developed, it only took three years for more than one million units to be sold. 

    They are now so prevalent that they are one of the biggest users of energy in the entire country. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Americans spend more than $22 billion per year and use more than 183 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity just to cool their homes every year. To put this figure into context, that means that more than FORTY Hoover Dams would need to be working full time, just to power the US’s Air Conditioning requirement. 

    Forty Hoover dams equals the USA demand for power for Air Conditioning

    This is clearly a lot in any currency, but to put that into some form of context, this energy consumption for air conditioning alone is equal to the amount of energy Africa uses every year to power the entire continent.

    8. Bigger isn’t always better, but newer invariably is

    In the same way that we don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, it’s important to specify an air conditioning system that is appropriate for the space its trying to cool. Too big and it will always run inefficiently and too small and it will never quite maintain the desired temperature. A smaller unit that’s been appropriately specified and not being over-stretched, will use less energy and work at peak operating efficiency. 

    And efficiency is everything. 

    Air Conditioning by Kimptons

    A newer system replacing one that’s as little as seven years old will be far, far more efficient. In the average home or office, over half of the energy costs are spent on heating and cooling. It doesn’t take Theodore Levitt, or any other genius of economics to understand that a newer system could pay for itself many times over just in the savings in running costs within its design life.  

    9. Designed to Dehumidify

    As Willis Carrier found in his early experiments, the benefit of air conditioning isn’t just in the cooler and more controlled air, but also the dehumidifying effect that came with it. 

    Dehumidifying a working kitchen

    Cool air can’t carry as much moisture as warm air, so the act of lowering the temperature of a room also draws the moisture out of it. While air conditioning isn’t as effective as a purpose designed dehumidifier, it will help reduce moisture and therefore the control of mould and mildew growth.

    10. Saving lives with air conditioning

    As far-fetched as it sounds, this cooling and dehumidifying effect also makes it perfect for advanced lab research, where controlled conditions are essential. This has allowed more advanced experimentation and ultimately life saving drug production that would not have been possible without it.

    But it’s helping us all in the heat too. 

    Air conditioning unit being installed in a research laboratory in Liverpool by Kimptons
    Air Conditioning unit being installed in a research laboratory in Liverpool by Kimptons

    American researchers found that the chance of dying on extremely hot summer days has fallen more than 80 percent over the last 50 years. The research team put this huge advance down to the rise in prevalence of air conditioning.

    11. And at the same time, making us all less tolerant of it too.

    In that amazing hot summer of 1976, all Brits over 50 remember as being the last hot summer in living memory, few would have complained about the heat. The kids ran in and out of paddling pools and parents simply drew their thick velour curtains to keep the heat out of the house. 

    But now we’ve all become rather ‘nesh’ and can’t cope with the heat any more. 

    Scientific studies have shown that the introduction of air conditioning has actually lowered the natural human tolerance for heat. Meaning a hot summer’s day seems much more amplified than it did a few generations ago.

    Imagine life in Dubai without air conditioning
    Imagine life in Dubai without air conditioning?

    Even the oldies who could cope so easily in 1976, will be seen scurrying for air conditioned cars and shops to get away from the heat. And can you even imagine life in a 40 degree Summer day heat in Dubai without air conditioning? 

    No, us either. 

    12. But they do help reduce allergies

    Which may have had the negative side effect of making us all more susceptible to them too, but air conditioning systems and their extraordinary filtration will also remove allergens and other small particles from the air. 

    So if you are particularly prone to allergies then life in an air conditioned environment will make your life a whole lot easier and keep the summer sneezing at bay.

    Sneezing as a sign of allergies can be prevented with air conditioning
    Sneezing as a sign of allergies can be prevented with air conditioning

    What this also implies is that air conditioning maintenance is absolutely essential too. Something as simple as a dirty filter will reduce operating efficiency and require more energy to run as well as reduce its ability to filter out allergens.

    Our own Diamond Partnership with Mitsubishi allows us to offer up to a seven year warranty on the air conditioning systems we install as long as they are properly and regularly serviced. 

    13. More commonly in Cars

    The first air conditioning systems in cars appeared in a Packard in 1939. Whilst they worked well, they weren’t that popular due to their extraordinarily high price and the fact that the evaporator and blower to power it, took up over half of the boot space.

    Car air conditioning

    The refrigerating coils were also behind the back seat. It was another 30 years in 1969, before the big three car manufacturers installed air conditioning in more than half their new cars.

    14. Shifting populations

    The rise of air conditioning allowed some of the US states that would have otherwise been considered too hot, to become far more easily habitable. In the United States, the historical powerhouse was the Northeast in New York and Washington. As Air Conditioning worked its way across the states, so did the economies begin to boom in the hotter, southern states such as Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Texas.

    Arizona only grew due to the rise of air conditioning
    Arizona grew due to the spread of air conditioning

    Dubai and the Gulf States again have built their economies on the spending power of oil and the cooling power of air conditioning. Without the benefit of cool hotels and offices, Dubai would have remained a non-starter for anyone but the hardiest of travellers. 

    15…. and influencing architecture

    Before air conditioning, homes and buildings were designed with higher ceilings, external passageways between buildings (called breezeways in the US) to allow airflow and even screened external porches to allow sleeping outside in the warmer months. They often used natural landscaping to create shadows and harnessed the benefits of the stack effect throughout their designs, to naturally ventilate them, so that homes and their owners would stay cool. 

    Natural History Museum in London was designed to remain naturally cool before the advent of air conditioning
    Natural History Museum in London was designed to remain naturally cool before the advent of air conditioning

    As air conditioning grew in popularity, architects stopped building for these natural cooling effects and in many ways, architecture became less dramatic. The building norms it set, meant that without natural ventilation, they were entirely dependent on air conditioning. A modern building without it, quickly becomes stuffy and hot. 

    As we move towards the future however, with more passive house and office design, natural ventilation is again being designed into structures to support air conditioning systems and minimise energy usage and energy wastage. 

    New buildings are being created that can breathe more naturally, use louvres and overhangs to keep the sun and its heat at bay in the summer and harness the warmth of the lower sun in the winter. They work in tandem with air conditioning and natural ventilation systems, which when designed properly, deliver exceptional living and working spaces.

    16. How does air conditioning work?

    Air conditioning uses refrigeration to reduce the temperature of air. To do this, it makes use of a fundamental law of physics. 

    When a liquid converts to a gas, it absorbs heat in a process known as phase conversion.

    For an air conditioner to create a chilled liquid, it needs to compress the gas within the system, which converts it into a liquid. This chilled liquid is passed through a series of coils, rather like a radiator for a car in reverse. As warmer air from outside passes over these coils it is cooled. In the process, the liquid within the coils is warmed as the heat is transferred. This process depressurises the liquid and it re-converts it into a gas which absorbs heat. This is then repeated in a cycle.

    The cooled air is used to cool the space. 

    During the process, the extra heat created by compressing the gas is then evacuated to the outdoors with the help of a second set of coils called condenser coils, and a second fan. As the gas cools, it changes back to a liquid, and the process starts all over again. 

    You can see how air conditioning works in this video. 

    17. Maintaining an air conditioning system 

    Regular maintenance is key to maintaining the operating efficiency of any air conditioning system. 

    There are simple things you can do yourself without any real technical knowledge. When we install a system, we make sure we show you how to carry out this simple work. 

    You need to clean and/or change the filters once per month when the system is running, normally in summer months, but often year round. If you don’t change the filters, the system will get clogged up and the air flow will decrease. If the filters are clogged, the particulate filters will also fail to work properly and there’s a higher risk of airborne infection. We often hear of ‘sick office’ syndrome being blamed on air conditioning, but it’s far more common for this to be caused by lack of simple maintenance, than the system itself. 

    With any system, it does need to be properly serviced every year. With our close relationship and Diamond partnership with Mitsubishi, it’s a condition of the extended seven-year warranty that it’s serviced by one of our certified technicians to maintain the unit and perform any electrical maintenance. 

    This regular maintenance can be done at any time of year, but it’s far more sensible to book this when the weather is cool and the system can be down for a few hours, than when it’s sweltering and the air conditioning is an office essential. 

    So if you have an air conditioning need…

    …We have the air conditioning team.

    Call us today to talk through your requirements or simply to book a maintenance visit on 0151 343 1963

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