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July 23, 2015
By Alexander Lucas


Summer has been cranking up the heat, and when you need to escape it, nothing beats a cool, air-conditioned room. Yet a little over a century ago, it was near impossible to get that comfort.

Throughout history, humanity has had to come up with some creative ways to keep cool in some of the hottest places on the planet.

Ancient solutions

There has always been a strong desire to adjust our immediate climate. The need to heat a room was quickly remedied with the invention of fire. There was not, however, as simple a solution for cooling.

The hand fan became an early solution for personal cooling, though it certainly helped to have a team of slaves fanning you with palm fronds rather than doing it yourself. The earliest pictorial evidence of fans seems to date from 3000 B.C., and certainly the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Japanese and Chinese used hand fans before the Middle Ages.

Roman Emperor Elagabalus had another creative solution to beating the heat. He sent thousands of slaves and a donkey train to fetch snow from the mountains during the hot Roman summer.

A more elegant solution arose in the Middle East, primarily in Persia. Wind towers, or windcatchers, were used in conjunction with underground water tunnels to pull cool air through a house. Wealthy Romans used water as well, sucking aqueduct water through the walls of their homes, thereby lowering the ambient temperature.

Mechanically speaking, the most intricate design of this era was from Ding Huan during the Han dynasty in China. He developed a seven-wheeled, 10-foot diameter, manually-powered rotary fan. During the Tang dynasty, another Chinese inventor would combine this invention with water-powered wheels to create a self-powered “Cool Hall” at the emperor’s palace.

The original ceiling fan

Prior to the electric age, another manually operated method of cooling came into practice, known as the punkah. Punkah fans date back to 500 B.C. in South Asia, and in its original form, it was not much different from other early hand fans.

The real innovation was the attachment of large, bamboo fans to ceilings that were operated by servants through levers or ropes. British colonials came upon this invention in India in the 18th century, and from there it spread to other colonies. 

You can still see punkahs in the United States if you visit historical southern plantations. Like modern ceiling fans, they could be used to cool large areas with minimal manual effort.

Swamp coolers

In 1881, as President James Garfield was dying from an assassin’s bullet, naval engineers rigged up a machine that blew air across melted ice water to help cool the room and control the swampy D.C. weather. It helped keep the room 20 degrees cooler, but also used a half million pounds of ice during the two months before Garfield was moved to a home in New Jersey.

The first patented mechanical version of this invention came from a Florida physician named Dr. John Gorrie. He invented an ice-making machine that also blew air across the ice to cool hospital rooms. Gorrie did not receive a patent for an air conditioner, but did receive one for the ability to make ice. Due to issues with leaking, irregular performance and competition, Gorrie tragically died penniless. 

Evaporative coolers, also known as swamp coolers, are still used this day, especially in drier climates.

All because of warped paper

The reason we have air conditioning today comes as much from the desire to control humidity as it does from wishing to the lower temperature. Printing shops suffered greatly from hot, humid weather as paper would warp and ink would set slower. Willis Carrier, a 25-year-old working for a print shop in Brooklyn, New York, created the first air conditioner to combat this problem, launching a technological revolution. (Now when you see a Carrier air conditioner, you will have a better idea why it is named as such.)

Though it was a game changer, air conditioners spread slowly. The first window units didn’t really begin to show up until the late ‘30s. The first air conditioned car was a 1939 Packard, though there were no controls for the system. The first businesses to really use the technology for consumers were movie theaters. But other businesses were slower to adopt, believing they were paying for their workers’ sweat not for their comfort. While around 87 percent of homes today now have air conditioning, only 10 percent had air conditioning as of 1965.

More impressively, air conditioning has helped drive population shifts to different parts of the country. The Sunbelt (southern United States) has seen its share of the population bloom, jumping from 28 percent in the ‘50s to more than 40 percent today.

Cooling our tech

Air conditioning and fans have also played a large part in allowing for faster computers. Computer components all create heat. Without air conditioned data centers and high-powered computer fans, computer components could easily break. Computer designs that could only rely on passive cooling methods would necessitate far less powerful processors.

Could you live without air conditioning? What was the worst time you ever found yourself without AC? Leave a comment below and be sure to check out some of our other articles:

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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