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The History of Air-conditioning

A very convoluted journey

The concept of air-conditioning in general dates back to the 2nd-century when Chinese inventor Ding Huan, an artisan and inventor during the Han Dynasty (206-220AD), created a fan with seven spinning wheels attached to a 3m diameter wooden circle. This device was manually operated, one can only imagine by loyal minions for an austere Emperor. Such were the times. There is some evidence to suggest that Chinese Emperors were using water-powered fan wheels to blow air through mechanised fountains and into the Imperial Palace halls. But we like the loyal minions idea.

However, keeping humans cool was secondary to keeping food fresh - and for a long time. Refrigeration was a far greater need and eventually, it was a combination of the air cooling and refridgeration that led to the eventual creation of what we now call air conditioning.

Nor did any of this happen over night. It was rather a slow melding of various technologies, ideas and chemical experiments that led to today's air conditioner.

Ben Franklin, John Hadley and Dr. John Gorrie

Flash forward to the late 18th century

Famous American Benjamin Franklin (yup!) and Cambridge university professor John Hadley were experimenting with several chemicals that cooled quicker than water. It wasn't until the 1820s that these experiments were refined by British scientist Michael Faraday who discovered the unique cooling properties of liquid ammonia.

At about the same time, a Doctor John Gorrie was treating his malaria patients by freshening the air. It was thought at the time that diseases were caused by impure air and to this end, Gorrie drained all the swamps around hospitals and cooling room air for patients. At the time he was using compressors to create ice which was placed in buckets beneath ceiling fans to cool the rooms. In 1851 he was granted a patent for an ice-making machine. Ironically, draining swamps also got rid of mosquitoes and so one can easily see how people got behind his strange idea.

The industrial revolution

This melding of mostly disparate ideas eventually evolved into the notion of centralised air conditioning for buildings such as hospitals, municipal buildings, flats and eventually whole cities. After Gorrie's impoverished demise in 1855, the concept of air-conditioning was relegated to the back-burner - only to resurrect nearly 50 years later when in 1902, a US Engineering graduate named William Carrier created a machine that blew cold air over coils. Why would anyone want to do that? Carrier's aim was to successfully control room temperature and humidity at a busy (and very hot) printing plant in Brooklyn, USA. The concern was not for the people working in such hot conditions, but for the over-heating machines. Carrier's Apparatus for Treating Air was patented in 1906 and while Carrer is recognized as the inventor of air conditioning, he never referred to his invention as "air conditioning".

That phrase was coined by extile engineer, Stuart Cramer. Cramer also had a patent for an air conditioning device which added water and ventilation to the air in textile plants - also not invented for human comfort - but with the sole purpose of conditioning yarn. At the time water evaporation (and its cooling effect) was known as water coiernditioning, which is really yet another type of air conditioning.

100 years later

Today there are various types of air-conditioning systems, but they still operate on the same principal of blowing cool air into a room. From the 1950s right through to the 80s, modern homes employed window mounted air-conditioners. They essentially operate in much the same way as the early Chinese Imperial Palace mechanical system (although our palaces are much smaller). Again, air is blown through a refrigerated grill and into the home or room.

So when you look up at your fancy new wall-mounted air conditioner, or dial down the temperature on your iPhone app, give a thought to all the pioneers - few of whom had any intention of cooling your brow during a heatwave.

Fascinating stuff. To us at least :)

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