Shot on July 2, 1881, President Garfield lay dying in a room with the first air conditioner. Naval engineers, whose primary expertise was ventilating mining shafts, had been called in to help the ailing leader. The cooling device they assembled was composed of a large box filled with ice, salt, water, terry cloth and charcoal filters. As the ice melted and saturated the terry cloth, a fan circulated the cooler air that was created. During the remaining days of the President’s life, his cooling unit consumed 250,000 pounds of ice.
With the first rotary fan having been invented in 2nd century China, it took milennia for us to harness the power of cooling to our economic growth.
Willis Carrier called his 1906 cooling device “An Apparatus for Treating Air.” Very large, noisy, and dependent on ammonia, the Carrier unit had changed considerably when, during the 1950s, AC took off. But even one hundred years ago, his innovation was used by a printing plant because it dried ink faster and diminished paper jams. Since then, cooler offices have meant more productive workers–for typists, 24% better (really, a conclusion from one study) It brought people to the movies on a hot summer day, to air cooled department stores, and to Florida and California. In 1940, a Packard was the first auto with AC.
You see where this is going. Air conditioning helps economic growth by making us more comfortable where we work, as we shop and when we drive. It expands the potential of our human capital.
Written by financial historian John Steele Gordon, WSJ.com has a wonderful article on the history of air conditioning. Then, placing AC within a broader innovative context in the US, Bill Bryson tells us more about its history in Made in America.