Willis Carrier: Biography
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Born: 26 November 1876
Died: 07 October 1950
Willis Carrier was born in 1876 in western New York to Duane and Elizabeth Haviland Carrier. He was an only child who spent a great deal of time tinkering with mechanical devices. His interest in engineering led him to a state scholarship at Cornell University, where he met his first wife, Claire Seymour. After graduating from Cornell in 1901, Carrier took a job at the Buffalo Forge Company, where he set up a research laboratory and experimented with the industrial applications of electricity.
At the turn of the century, there was already an understanding of how to cool, circulate, and moisten air, but Carrier was the first to reduce air humidity and hold moisture content to specified levels. He defined air conditioning as a process that would clean air while controlling temperature, humidity, air circulation, and ventilation. In 1903 the Buffalo Forge Company installed the first scientific air conditioning system at Sackett-Wilhelms Lithography and Publishing Company in Brooklyn. Many companies that dealt with paper and textiles were very interested in the idea of improving their production processes by controlling the levels of moisture and temperature.
Carrier continued researching and inventing industrial applications for air conditioning. He developed equipment to dehumidify air by cooling it with a water spray. In 1915, he and six other young engineers from the Buffalo Forge Company formed the Carrier Engineering Corporation. The Carrier Engineering Corporation was a center of both research and manufacturing. It was soon successful in producing not only air conditioning systems but also refrigeration machines. The market for air conditioning developed first in public venues, such as department stores, sports venues, and movie theaters during the 1920s. Carrier was particularly proud that his company provided air conditioning to the Senate and the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Although air conditioning did not become common in private homes until the 1950s, the Carrier Corporation became the company most associated with refrigeration and air conditioning in the United States. Out of his youthful interest in electricity and engineering, Willis Carrier advanced scientific knowledge, pioneered an industry, and built a successful commercial enterprise.
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's long-time prime minister, called air conditioning the most important invention of the 20th century. Though historians seldom place it at the top of the list, most would include it among the hundred most important inventions of the century. The person who did most to develop this technology was Willis Haviland Carrier.
Carrier was born in Angola, New York, on 26 November 1876, and attended Cornell University, where he received a master's degree in electrical engineering in 1901. He worked first on heating systems for industry, and then, in 1902, devised a cooling and dehumidifying system for a printing company. (The phrase "air conditioning," to describe such control of heat and humidity, was introduced in 1906.) Carrier continued to work on such systems, obtaining many patents. One of the most important was a patent, issued on 21 May 1907, on a control system for regulating temperature and humidity. That same year, Carrier established a company to manufacture air-conditioning systems.
Before the 1920s, Carrier and other companies, including General Electric and Frigidaire, provided air conditioning almost exclusively for factories. But in the 1920s and 1930s, air conditioning became common in cinemas and stores. Indeed, in the summer months, air conditioning became a major attraction of movie houses. As early as 1929, Frigidaire offered home air-conditioning, but residential use didn't catch on until the 1950s. Many movies from the 1950s, such as The Seven Year Itch (starring Marilyn Monroe) and Father's Little Dividend (starring Spencer Tracy), featured window air conditioners.
Lee Kuan Yew, in arguing for the importance of air conditioning, pointed out that formerly in tropical countries, work activity decreased as temperatures increased, and it is plausible that Singapore's dynamic economy — the country is just one degree latitude away from the equator — would not have been possible without air conditioning. Similarly, the rapid economic growth of Atlanta and much of the South in the 1970s and 1980s probably owed a great deal to air conditioning. In the 1991 movie Bugsy (starring Warren Beatty), it is just after World War II that Bugsy Siegel conceives a plan to develop Las Vegas as a resort town in the desert; it will be made possible, he says, because of the Hoover Dam (the source of the electricity) and air conditioning ("the wave of the future").
Air conditioning is unquestionably beneficial, as it has made life much more comfortable in much of the world, and it is a necessity in some types of manufacturing. It has, however, added to the cost of living and to energy consumption. One third of Singapore's electricity production goes to air conditioning. And air-conditioning refrigerants have probably had detrimental effect on the ozone layer. In the 1997 Woody Allen movie Deconstructing Harry, when the main character asks the devil, "What? You have air-conditioning in Hell?" He receives the answer: "Sure! [BLEEPS] up the ozone layer!"
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