I’m writing this post during a heat wave…
It’s mid-summer, and, if you’re not in air conditioning, you’re likely on your way to a place that has it. It seems only appropriate to feature Willis Haviland Carrier, “The Father of Air Conditioning,” as our subject to this “Learning from InvENtors” post. So, sit back, relax, crank up that air and enjoy…
You never know when or where you are going to get an idea. For Willis Carrier, it was on a foggy Pittsburgh train platform in 1902. Carrier stared through the mist and realized that he could dry air by passing it through water to create fog. Doing so would make it possible to manufacture air with specific amounts of moisture in it. Within a year, he completed his invention to control humidity – the fundamental building block for modern air conditioning.
- Born November 26, 1876, in Angola, New York
- Earned engineering degree from Cornell University in 1901
- Started working at Buffalo Forge Company in 1901
- Designed the world’s first modern air conditioning system in 1902
- Developed Rational Psychrometric Formulae in 1911
- Founded Carrier Engineering Corporation in 1915
- Awarded honorary doctorates from Lehigh University (1935) and Alfred University (1942)
- Died October 7, 1950, in New York City
- Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1985
- Named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century” in 1998
As a child, Willis Haviland Carrier had difficulty grasping the concept of fractions. Realizing his struggles, his mother taught him by cutting whole apples into various-sized fractional pieces. He later said this lesson was the most important one that he ever learned because it taught him the value of intelligent problem-solving which paved the way to his greatest achievement.
Carrier’s invention went beyond keeping us cool in the summer. It actually created several industries that power today’s economy from factories to movie theaters to methods of mass transportation to computing.
After graduating from Cornell University with an engineering degree, Carrier got a job at the Buffalo Forge Company, a respected supplier of forges, fans and hot blast heaters. During his time there, Carrier created designs for a heating plant, a lumber dry kiln and a coffee dryer, among others.
On July 17, 1902, Carrier initialed a set of mechanical drawings designed to solve a production problem at the Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Company in Brooklyn, New York.
The production problem began with paper. Humidity in the plant wreaked havoc with the color register of its fine, multicolor printing. Ink – applied one color at a time – would misalign with the expansion and contraction of the paper stock, causing poor quality, scrap waste and many lost production days. They needed a solution and fast.
Carrier was assigned the challenge and he immediately began his investigation starting with testing and intense data gathering, both of which were hallmarks of his long career. After a number of experiments, Carrier replaced steam with cold water flowing through heating coils, balancing the temperature of the coil surface with the rate of airflow to pull the air temperature down to the desired dew point temperature.
The first set of coils was installed at the Sackett & Wilhelms plant late in the summer of 1902 along with fans, ducts, heaters, perforated steam pipes for humidification, and temperature controls. Cooling water was drawn from an artesian well that first summer and supplemented by an ammonia compressor in the spring of 1903 to meet the demands of the first full summer of operation. This system of chilled coils was designed to maintain a constant humidity of 55 percent year-round and have the equivalent cooling effect of melting 108,000 pounds of ice per day.
On October 21, 1903, the head of Sackett & Wilhelms reported that, “The cooling coils which we sold this company have given excellent results during the past summer.” Willis Carrier had demonstrated the intellect, creativity and vision to assemble everything that had gone on before him, improve upon it, and create something entirely new.
After that, nothing would be the same. Modern air conditioning was born.
By 1903, taking what he had learned from his experiences with Sackett & Wilhelms, Carrier had completed the apparatus first visualized on that foggy Pittsburgh evening, the world’s first spray-type air-conditioning system able to both wash and humidify or dehumidify air.
Carrier then conceived the idea of adjusting humidity by heating the spray water itself and controlling the dew point temperature of the air leaving the conditioning machine. With this came “dew point control” which, an early company brochure announced, was “the greatest single factor in modern air conditioning.”
In 1905, at the age of 29, Willis Carrier became the head of the Buffalo Forge Engineering Department, directing research and supervising all application and design. Shortly thereafter, Carrier’s staff began referring to him as “the Chief,” a name given out of admiration and respect.
Carrier authored a catalog which offered data about his air washer and included the first psychometric chart ever published in 1906. This catalog was designed to sell equipment and educate the entire industry. It also contained a prophecy from the Chief that “comfort” applications in public buildings, theaters, churches and restaurants would one day become common. And was he right…
Willis Carrier was truly a visionary of his time. He was able to grasp a broad concept well before his peers while efficiently solving a specific engineering problem. This “practical genius” gave the company its most outstanding competitive advantage: sales engineers could sell air conditioning for almost any application, convinced that the Chief could design a system suited to their customers’ needs.
“The ‘catch’ must be edible or I don’t try for it,” Carrier would explain. “I only fish for edible fish and test for useful data.”
In 1907, modern air conditioning leapt from the textile mill to the pharmaceutical plant with an installation at Parke, Davis & Company in Detroit, Michigan. Then, a proposal was made to the Huguet Silk Mill in Wayland, New York, guaranteeing a relative humidity of 65 percent throughout the entire year—the first promise of conditions and not simply equipment performance. The single most enduring advance came in 1907 with the first sale of Carrier’s air-conditioning equipment to an international customer, the Fuji Silk Spinning Company in Yokohama, Japan. The system installed in Japan reduced dust and static over 60,000 spindles beyond dramatically increasing efficiency and improving working conditions.
By late 1907, management at Buffalo Forge had fully grasped the opportunity for air conditioning and moved to create a wholly-owned subsidiary, the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America. Officially incorporated on April 18, 1909, the name was fitting recognition of Willis Carrier’s leadership in this remarkable new industry.
GROWTH OF AN INDUSTRY
Carrier immediately landed a contract with the Celluloid Company, a firm making film for the new motion picture industry. As business in the textile industry expanded, the company also won contracts to install air conditioning to reduce rust on razor blades at the Gillette Safety Razor Company, in factories producing rubber, rayon, flour and baked goods, and in a Pittsburgh hospital ward for premature babies.
In 1911, Carrier’s research and development efforts came together in the single most famous and enduring document ever prepared on air conditioning. His “Rational Psychrometric Formulae,” called the “Magna Carta of Psychrometrics,” was presented on December 8, 1911, at the annual meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
His psychometric chart, used to correlate temperature and humidity in the design of air-conditioning systems, would be reproduced in college textbooks and translated into many languages. It is the predecessor of the charts used today. At the age of 35, Willis Carrier had become internationally recognized.
As time went on, more and more industries embraced Carrier air conditioning technology – malt houses, candy and processed food, breweries and meat-packing houses to name a few. Air conditioning adoption continued at a tremendous pace in just a decade. Professional societies followed the lead of ASME and included air conditioning in their programs. Consulting engineers and architects became interested in specifying air-conditioning equipment.
And then, with the start of the war in Europe in July 1914, everything changed. Economic uncertainty forced management at Buffalo Forge to confine their operations to traditional manufacturing, which meant the immediate dissolution of Carrier Air Conditioning Company. Only Willis Carrier and J. Irvine Lyle remained employees. Just as the business had taken hold it was about to be shut down. Carrier didn’t let this stop him…he had other ideas.
On June 26, 1915, Carrier Engineering Corporation was incorporated with Willis Carrier as president, Lyle as treasurer and general manager, and five hand-picked colleagues. It was a true entrepreneurial undertaking: seven young men who scraped together $32,600 in capital with the intention, despite an economic slump and world war, of building a brand-new industry.
Carrier Engineering Corporation opened for business July 1, 1915, and just 18 days later booked its first contract with the American Ammunition Company in Paulsboro, New Jersey.
Wartime = Opportunity
Ten of the first 29 jobs Carrier Engineering Corporation fulfilled were for fuse-loading plants critical to the Allied war effort. So the war that seemed to close one door on the Carrier Air Conditioning Company opened another for the Carrier Engineering Corporation.
Carrier continued to persevere and create milestones. In 1917—something extraordinary for the times—the Carrier Engineering Corporation hired its first female engineer, Margaret Ingels.
Despite milestones like these, however, the war did have an effect on business.
In a June 1918 memo, Lyle indicated that all but government orders had been sidelined by the war, and Carrier was losing many able-bodied men to the draft. “Bear in mind that there are enough people connected with this organization to keep it going regardless of the draft,” Lyle wrote, “and do not think for a minute that we are going to close up shop. When the war is over, we are going to have an organization with which to carry on a much larger business than we have ever done.”
As the war neared its close, Carrier Engineering Corporation rented a new plant in Newark, New Jersey, and moved co-founder, Ned Stacey, from managing the Chicago office to head a newly-formed Department of Research and Development.
At the same time, Carrier Engineering Corporation also launched a new company, Carrier Construction Company, Inc., “dedicated to the single object of producing sheet metal work par excellence, at prices comparing favorably with those charged by the ordinary ‘tinsmith.'”
“We are now settled in our new home,” the company wrote its customers, “prepared to offer our clients, present and prospective, the same service which has built our business from the beginning—Manufactured Weather for any requirement.”
Carrier also resumed international expansion by adding a continental European representative and forming Carrier Engineering Company Ltd. in London.
In just six short years, with over 200 industries served, the Carrier Engineering Corporation had established a reputation for the highest quality work and a marquee customer list. Little did customers realize, however, that what would emerge from the company’s first manufacturing plant the following year would become the single most important product in Carrier’s first 50 years. While modern air conditioning had made its mark on the way people worked, Willis Carrier and his upstart company were about to show the public how it would change the way they lived.
In May of 1922, Carrier unveiled his single most influential innovation, the centrifugal refrigeration machine (or “chiller”). Over the next decade, the centrifugal chiller would extend the reach of modern air conditioning from textile mills, candy factories and pharmaceutical labs to the revolutionary work of ensuring human comfort in theaters, stores, offices and homes.
Supported by nearly 20 new patents, centrifugal chillers provided affordable, safe and efficient cooling.
In May, 1923, Carrier partnered with three large fan manufacturers to found the Aerofin Corporation. Aerofin offered a lightweight, brass and copper alternative to bulky cast-iron heat exchangers.
Carrier launched its own version of “the Roaring Twenties” in 1924 with the first in a series of historic installations. The J.L. Hudson Company, Detroit’s largest department store, installed three, 195-ton centrifugal chillers. Officially classified as comfort air conditioning, Willis Carrier noted, the installation was also designed “to meet an emergency as temperatures soared on basement bargain days—people fainted.” Other sophisticated retailers in Seattle, Boston, Cincinnati, Dallas and New York City soon followed.
But the real breakthrough that would truly put centrifugal chillers and comfort air conditioning on the map was movie theaters. Carrier set about conquering the theater industry in three giant steps:
- The successful installation of comfort air at Sid Grauman’s Metropolitan Theatre in Los Angeles. While employing traditional ammonia refrigeration, the installation introduced two striking advances in modern air conditioning, bypass circulation and down-draft distribution systems. Together these improvements changed the economics of theater installations and improved the experience of moviegoers by replacing the cold chill of “mushroom” vents at their feet with a gentle flow of air from ceiling registers.
- The Palace Theatre in Dallas and The Texan in Houston represented the second important step, becoming the first theaters to successfully install complete Carrier systems including centrifugal chillers, down-draft and bypass.
- With its “off-Broadway” work a success, Carrier took the third and most important step in movie theater comfort by installing a complete centrifugal chiller system in the Rivoli Theatre in New York City, meeting with instant acclaim.
In only a few short years Willis Carrier’s centrifugal refrigeration had brought Carrier Engineering Corporation to the movies and shopping, into offices and mines and aboard naval ships, to hockey games and broadcast studios, and from Broadway to Europe, South America and Australia. Even as modern air conditioning continued to improve the productivity of global industries, comfort air had fully captured the imagination of the public.
In February of 1929, Willis Carrier gave a speech forecasted that “air conditioning and cooling for summer may become a necessity rather than a luxury, and we will look upon present times as marking the end of that ‘dark age’ in which there was but relatively little cooling for human comfort.”
Later that year, Carrier focused his attention to transportation, more specifically, the railroad. He began working on a steam ejector refrigerating system that used water as the refrigerant.
At a Carrier Corporation open house in 1931, radio commentator Lowell Thomas reported enthusiastically that…
“A most imposing list of railroad executives journeyed over to Newark, New Jersey, and there … they stepped into an old, obsolete car. Outside it was warm as blazes. Inside the car the temperature was 74, cool and pleasant. And what made it so cool? Why, steam! Yes—hot steam! Scalding hot steam! A new system had been devised for cooling railroad trains.”
Carrier clearly understood the importance of this market segment when he said, “While theatres, department stores and restaurants have undoubtedly played an important part, it is believed that the greatest impetus to public acceptance came through the wholesale adoption of air conditioning by the railroads.”
Demonstrating company versatility, another team built a full-sized replica of a food store in the back lot of the Newark plant, dazzling a large contingent of chain-store executives—just as it had railroad executives—with the power of Manufactured Weather.
Carrier also entered a third important market, human health, when it air conditioned hospitals in Mexico City and in Cairo, Egypt. Closer to home, the Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City used a Carrier cold diffuser in its cryotherapy room to maintain a constant room temperature during cold temperature treatment of cancer patients. By 1940, the American Medical Association’s Council on Physical Therapy accepted Carrier room ventilators equipped with a pollen-type filter and authorized the use of the AMA seal.
In 1931, the new Carrier Corporation demonstrated the logic of its merger by introducing the Atmospheric Cabinet, a room cooler with a fan, cooling coil and filter enclosed in a cabinet, and a refrigerating machine located outside the room.
Responding to the emerging residential market, in 1928, the company founded subsidiary Carrier-Lyle, enlisting engineer Margaret Ingels the following year to promote the advantages of Manufactured Weather in the home. By May 1931, 600 Carrier Room Weathermakers had been installed. While bulky by today’s standards, the product was still able to advertise itself as “Half the size, half the price, yet double the protection against weather discomfort.”
Despite the Depression, Carrier continued to innovate, introducing the Conduit Weathermaster System for large, multi-unit buildings and skyscrapers. The system was designed to distribute moisture-controlled air through narrow ducts at high velocity, allowing the air to be cooled or heated at the point of delivery by individually controlled units. The company sold its largest Weathermaster installation to the Pentagon, and cooled the Statler Hotel in Washington, D.C., the last hotel in the nation to be built before entry into World War II.
In 1942, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics awarded Carrier Corporation the contract to install an air-conditioning system in its wind tunnel in Cleveland, Ohio. This was a project so difficult, Willis Carrier remembered, that “the task seemed impossible when I first tackled it.” However, with the same tenacity that marked his entire career—from the original Sackett & Wilhelms installation of modern air conditioning, to the Atlas Powder Company during World War I, to making ice at Madison Square Garden, to the Robinson Deep gold mine—Carrier would make the seemingly impossible possible.
In February 1946, Carrier sponsored its first postwar national sales meeting with 300 dealers and distributors attending, and later that year acquired the Thompson Road, Syracuse, New York, facilities from the United States government. The TR-1 building, a 660,000-square-foot plant described as “the largest and most modern facilities in the world for the manufacture of air conditioning and refrigeration,” soon began production of centrifugal refrigeration machines.
ONLY THE BEGINNING…
With the end of World War II, Willis Carrier and his wife set off on a well-earned, three-month trip to South America. Visiting 30 cities, Dr. Carrier was treated as a celebrity everywhere he went.
Not long after his return, however, doctor’s orders required that he slow his pace. In February 1948, he was named Chairman Emeritus of Carrier Corporation and could still be glimpsed occasionally in the office. More often, he welcomed a steady stream of visitors to his home. Even then, Dr. Carrier would rarely be seen without a yellow legal pad and his trusty slide rule nearby, pondering a complex problem.
Dr. Carrier passed away on October 7, 1950, at the age of 73, but his legacy continues to live on. In 1951 air conditioning became a billion-dollar industry. Willis Carrier’s invention was installed around the world in thousands of factories, offices, stores and homes, and in hospitals, hotels, skyscrapers, airplanes, mines and more than 10,000 ships at sea. “Without exception,” Carrier Chairman Cloud Wampler noted, “these have served to benefit and improve the lot of mankind.”
Very few industries survive to the century mark. Fewer still can define themselves as “growth industries” more than a hundred years after their origin. Modern air conditioning, invented by Willis Carrier in 1902 and transformed over the decades into the business of air conditioning, heating and refrigeration, is one of those exceptional few.
Since its founding, Carrier has led the world in commercial air conditioning applications and in residential year-round comfort. The company’s equipment controls climates in the world’s essential industries, tallest buildings and grandest theaters, and in homes of every shape and description. The company enables the international transportation network to ship and display for sale fresh and frozen foodstuffs globally.
Through it all, Carrier has focused—in the defining spirit of its founder—on continually innovating to create elegant technology solutions for what are fundamentally human problems.
Willis Haviland Carrier is the epitomy of what we think of when we think about successful inventors – someone who took on any challenge, attempted to solve any problem, learned from his mistakes and never gave up.
I hope this post inspired your next idea, and in the interim, stay cool and Happy Inventing!