The Richmond History Podcast

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The First Air Conditioner

As one of the first patches of hot days is rolling in, we should not take our cool interiors for granted.  The deeper we get into summer, the harder it seems to believe that people could survive without air conditioning. It took a national tragedy to move us closer to interior comfort. 

In 1881, President James Garfield lay in the White House sweating and dying  in temperatures that hovered above 90 degrees.  Not as in "It is so hot I am dying", he did have an infected assassins bullet inside him.  Unfortunately, what little breeze there was, was coming from the wrong direction to effect the room in which the immobile president was laid.   Concerned Americans sent in tips and suggestions on how to cool the Executive Mansion.  Finally a corp of engineers from the Navy and a small group of scientists, including John Wesley Powell, the famous geologist and explorer and friend of Garfield gathered to solve the heat problem.  Garfield was in a room 20' x 25' with 18' ceilings so the scientist calculated at least three tons of ice would be needed to cool the room.  In another room, the Presidents Office, they soaked cheese cloth in ice water and hung it on a 6' pipe.  They set up a 36" electric fan that blew air through the cloth and into a series of tin pipes that funneled the air into the Presidents room.

SUCCESS!!!... well kind of.  The room was cooled to 55 degrees, but the machine made the room so humid and loud that Garfield gathered his dwindling strength to be heard over the racket and told them to cut it off.  It was realized that the tin pipes were amplifying the sound from room to room so the pipes were replaced with ones made of canvas covered with wire.

This first successful "Air Conditioner" in the US was able to lower the temp 20 degrees Fahrenheit but it took half a million pounds of ice to cool the room for two months.1  It seems they just had to deal with the humidity.

It took until 1902 for Willis Carrier to invent anything that we would recognize as AC today.1  He called his machine the "Apparatus for Treating Air", (not a super catchy name) and was built for the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Co. in Brooklyn, New York.1

Charles Gates, the son of gambler, John "Bet a Million" Gate, (now that's a catchy name)  had he first air conditioned home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and that didn't come until 1914.


Info from Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard unless other wise marked 

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24 comments:

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