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The History of Air Conditioning: How Our Ancestors Stayed Cool


7 Fun Facts About the History of Air Conditioning

Since it’s too hot to go outside and you’re probably safely ensconced in your comfortably air conditioned home or office, you may be feeling blessed to live in the 21st century where we only have to step inside to escape from the heat.

But the truth is, our ancestors had all sorts of clever ways to beat the heat, and some of their ideas are precursors to air conditioning as we know it today. So sit back and enjoy these fun facts about the history of air conditioning.

On the other hand, if you’re sitting in an office that’s not all that comfortable and wishing you could do something about it, here’s what you should be reading instead: Improving an Imperfect World: Mitigating Office Temperature Extremes.

The History of Air Conditioning Fun Fact #1: The Cave Dwellers built the first geothermal-cooled homes

We all know that it’s cooler underground and inside the earth. The first human hunter-gatherers figured that out for us a long time ago, probably around 10,000 BC. Not only did they make their homes in cool caves, but they built burrows under the earth to escape the heat. And now, 12,000 years later, geothermal cooling is the latest and greatest in cooling technology!

The History of Air Conditioning Fun Fact #2: The Egyptians invented water-cooled air conditioning

How smart do you have to be to figure out how to build giant pyramids out of rock without power equipment? Those Egyptians had some real talent for problem-solving, and you can bet it was pretty hot in Africa’s Nile River valley. So what did they do to stay cool without the benefit of modern air conditioning? They hung up wet reeds in the windows to cool the breeze coming in. It was the first water-cooled air conditioning!

The History of Air Conditioning Fun Fact #3: The Ancient Greeks and Romans developed ducting systems

After the Ancient Greeks developed the idea of central heating and cooling using water piped from aqueducts, the Romans stepped up the game with their hypocaust system. Their luxury villas and public bath houses had mosaic tiled stone floors supported by columns. The space underneath was used to transport heated air to warm the space, just like our modern HVAC systems use ducts to transport heated and cooled air to the spaces that need it.

The History of Air Conditioning Fun Fact #4: The Chinese invented fans

About 3000 years ago, the Chinese realized that moving air creates a cooling effect on the skin, and they invented a useful little device to produce moving air: a handheld fan. The first portable air conditioner! Someone even built a hand-powered rotary fan. Today, fans are still an indispensable part of just about any air conditioning system.

The History of Air Conditioning Fun Fact #5: Middle Eastern architects invented cooling towers

Traditional Middle Eastern building design for larger spaces often included towers that were built over underground channels of cool air. The towers were designed to catch and circulate cool breezes, and to draw the cool air up from underground channels while pushing warm air out. Nowadays, we’ve refined the concept to use cool water, but “cooling towers” are still used in the cooling of large buildings.

The History of Air Conditioning Fun Fact #6: The Victorians knew all about air flow

The Victorians may be known for their strict codes of conduct, but they were also masters of creative yet practical design. They knew a thing or two about using air flow to improve comfort. Homes were designed with high ceilings, covered porches to keep out the sun, and large recessed windows for cross ventilation. In today’s air conditioning systems, air flow is still one of the most critical components to ensuring a cool and comfortable space.

The History of Air Conditioning Fun Fact #7: American ingenuity accidentally created the first home air conditioner

Willis Carrier developed the first practical home air conditioner as a result of trying to solve a commercial business problem: removing humidity from the air in a New York publishing house. He was trying to find a way to make ink dry faster and keep paper from absorbing moisture.

All we can say is, thank you Willis Carrier! Summer is our favorite season because of you.

We hope you enjoyed our digression into the history of air conditioning from the usual practical information we like to provide about HVAC.

Here’s some more fun reading about HVAC:

9 Skills Sherlock Holmes & A Great New York HVAC Service Tech Share

Air Conditioning in NYC: Lessons from Seinfeld

Slate’s The History of Air Conditioning

AC Troubleshooting: FROZEN HVAC System? Don’t “Let It Go!”