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The Long, Hot Road To Modern Air Conditioning

Originally published on August 11, 2011 11:07 am

For some inventions, say the light bulb, everyone knows who invented it.

But at the U.S. Capitol on a hot July day, no one seemed to know who invented the air conditioner. Even as the statue of a man many call the air conditioner's inventor stood just down the hall.

After an hour or so of searching, Mike Veselik, from Chicago, came close to knowing.

"I know that a doctor from Florida came up with it, trying to stop people from having fevers I think it was," Veselik said.

Then again, Veselik is a Capitol intern, so some of his knowledge comes from his tour training.

That Florida doctor was John Gorrie. Born in 1803 in South Carolina, Gorrie moved to Florida to study tropical diseases. He noticed that Northerners didn't get yellow fever and thought it might have something to do with climate.

He started using ice to cool patients' rooms and later developed what many call the basis for the modern refrigerator and air conditioner.

There are even a state park and museum in Apalachicola, Fla., dedicated to him.

"People from Florida [are] very grateful for God giving Dr. Gorrie the talent that he did have to invent the ice machine, and refrigeration and air conditioning," says Willie McNair, a park ranger at the Gorrie Museum and State Park.

Inventor Title Contested

While Floridians consider Gorrie the father of the air conditioner, history tells a slightly different story.

After his discovery working with yellow fever patients, Gorrie obtained a patent for the refrigerator, not the air conditioner. He looked for financial support for his invention, but had trouble.

Marsha Ackermann, author of Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air Conditioning, says it's because he came head to head with the nation's ice lobby.

"The ice business was controlled by people in places like New England, where in the winter they would chop big slabs of ice out of the water," Ackermann says. "That's what people would use in iceboxes to keep their stuff cold. So the ideas of some guy from Florida trying to make things cooler was not necessarily something that the bigwigs, the people who actually had the power, would want to have happen."

Northern ice makers — who made lots of money shipping ice to the South during the summer — lobbied against Gorrie, and Northern newspapers made fun of his invention.

The patent went nowhere and he died a poor man at the age of 52.

Twenty years later, Willis Carrier was born. Carrier introduced a key feature that made the air conditioner we know today a reality.

"Humidity was the secret that eventually made air conditioning so successful," Ackermann says.

Specifically, removing humidity from the air. It was something Gorrie never did.

Carrier introduced his air conditioner in a New York City printing shop. It allowed the factory to make magazines in the summer without ink running off the pages. His air conditioner took off, and eventually Carrier also came to be known as the father of the air conditioner. His academic research on air conditioning is still considered the gold standard.

No Single Inventor After All

So, when it comes to air conditioning, who's the father — John Gorrie or Willis Carrier?

Neither, really.

A scientist named William Cullen is credited with demonstrating the first artificial refrigeration in 1748 at the University of Glasgow.

There were, of course, rudimentary attempts to cool air even in ancient civilizations. And during the time of Gorrie's and Carrier's work, several scientists in Europe were also working on similar projects.

"I don't think that fatherhood should necessarily be pinned on any one particular person," Ackermann says.

She argues that the air conditioner was an evolutionary invention, its technology perfected over many decades by people all over the world.

But in the U.S. Capitol, there's just the one statue — of John Gorrie, the father of modern refrigeration, not air conditioning. Willis Carrier had to settle for installing the Capitol's first air conditioning system, in 1928.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. You may be spending a lot of time huddled with your air conditioner in these sweltering days of summer, but do you know who to thank for that? Who invented the air conditioner? As we hear from NPR's Sam Sanders, the answer is not simple.

SAM SANDERS: For some inventions, say the light bulb, everyone knows who invented it. But at the U.S. capitol on a hot July day, no one seemed to know who invented the air conditioner, even as the statue of a man many call the AC's inventor stood just down the hall. Do you know who invented the air conditioner?

VERONICA BENO: No.

SANDERS: No idea?

BENO: I couldn't tell you.

SANDERS: Even on a day as hot as this?

BENO: I have no clue.

SANDERS: That was Veronica Beno, visiting with her family from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Others, like Salina Briseno, tried.

SALINA BRISENO: I used to know, 'cause when I was in my freshman year in college, I wrote a poem about it.

SANDERS: After at least an hour of searching, I found someone who came close to knowing.

MIKE VESELIK: I know that a doctor from Florida came up with it trying to stop people from having fevers, I think it was.

SANDERS: That's Mike Veselik, from Chicago, a capitol intern. That Florida doctor he mentions - he's John Gorrie. Born in 1803 in South Carolina, Gorrie moved to Florida to study tropical diseases. In Florida, he had an epiphany: his yellow fever patients got better when the rooms they were in were kept cool. So, he started blowing fans over blocks of ice in his patients' rooms. And then he developed what many call the basis for the modern refrigerator and air conditioner. There's even a state park and a museum in Apalachicola, Florida. Willie McNair is a park ranger at the Gorrie Museum and State Park.

WILLIE MCNAIR: People from Florida is very grateful God giving Dr. Gorrie the talent that he did have to invent the ice machine, and refrigeration and air conditioning.

SANDERS: While Floridians consider Gorrie the father of the air conditioner, history tells a slightly different story. After his discovery working with yellow fever patients, John Gorrie got a patent for the refrigerator, not the air conditioner. He looked for financial support for his invention but there was trouble - the ice lobby.

MARSHA ACKERMANN: The ice business was controlled by people in places like New England where in the winter they would chop big slabs of ice out of the water and that's what people would use in iceboxes to keep their stuff cold. So, the idea of some guy from Florida trying to make things cooler was not necessarily something that the big wigs, the people who actually had the power, would want to have happen.

SANDERS: That's Marsha Ackermann, the author of "Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air Conditioning." Gorrie was thwarted by that ice lobby. Northern ice makers, who made lots of money shipping ice to the South during the summer, lobbied against him. Northern newspapers made fun of his invention. The patent went nowhere. He died a poor man at the age of 52. Twenty years later, a man named Willis Carrier was born. Carrier introduced a key feature that made the air conditioner we know today a reality.

ACKERMANN: Humidity was the secret that made air conditioning eventually so successful.

SANDERS: Specifically, removing humidity from the air. That was something Gorrie never did. Carrier introduced his air conditioner in a New York printing shop. It allowed the factory to make magazines in the summer without ink running off the pages. His air conditioner took off, and eventually Carrier also came to be known as the father of the air conditioner. His academic research on air conditioning is still considered the gold standard. So, when it comes to air conditioning, who's the father - John Gorrie or Willis Carrier? How about neither. A scientist named William Cullen demonstrated the first artificial refrigeration in 1748 at the University of Glasgow. There were, of course, rudimentary attempts to cool air even in ancient civilizations. And during the time of Gorrie and Carrier's work, several scientists in Europe were also working on the same kinds of things.

ACKERMANN: I don't think the fatherhood should necessarily be pinned on any particular person.

SANDERS: That's Marsha Ackermann, who wrote the book on AC. She argues that the air conditioner was an evolutionary invention; the technology perfected over many decades by people all over the world. But in the U.S. capitol, there's just the one statue of John Gorrie, the father of modern refrigeration, not air conditioning. Willis Carrier had to settle for installing the capitol's first AC system in 1928. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.