Life Before Air Conditioning

Life Before Air Conditioning

Posted by
Ed Miller on Thu, Apr 10, 2014


Cooling homes with electric powered machines is a relatively new experience in human history. Up until the early 1900s most homeowners had to rely on natural methods for cooling, using water, ice, fans and ventilation. By the 1950s air conditioners became common in American homes. Today nearly 90% of U.S. homes have air conditioning. So how were people able to keep cool before the advent of electric air conditioners?

Early Systems for Cooling Homes

The first elaborate cooling systems were built in Ancient Rome for affluent investors. They built aqueducts to circulate water in between the brick walls of buildings, which had a cooling effect. In Persia, they used wind towers that had windows where wind was captured and forced down the building to cool it. This fundamental method is still used today. The first ceiling fans for homes were introduced in the early 1860s. These early two-blade ceiling fans were powered by running water and a nonelectric turbine. They became widely used in stores and restaurants. In 1882 Phillip Diehl invented the electric ceiling fan, which became common in American homes by the 1920s.

The Age of Selling Ice

You might wonder how long ice has been used to chill drinks, preserve food and help lower temperatures. The ice industry was first developed by Frederic Tudor in the early 1800s. After traveling the country he convinced owners of restaurants and bars to buy ice from his pond in Boston for cooling purposes, chilling drinks and making ice cream. He also convinced hospitals to help comfort their patients with ice. By 1850 he was transporting tons of ice to 28 American cities.

James Harrison began marketing the first mechanical ice making machine in Australia in 1854. By the early 1900s iceboxes were common in America but were soon replaced by electric freezers and refrigerators. The invention was based on a process of gas being converted to liquid then circulated through refrigeration coils then vaporized.

Residential Air Conditioning

The 1920s marked the beginning of widespread air conditioning in American homes.  The first electric air conditioner, known as the “Apparatus for Treating Air,” was invented in 1902 by Cornell University graduate Willis Carrier. The device controlled both humidity and temperature and used a process that evaporated water in air, now known as evaporative cooling. It was originally used to help improve production conditions in print shops. The first home air conditioning unit, installed in Minneapolis in 1914, was seven feet tall and six feet wide!

More developments came during the Depression years with the arrival of individual room air conditioning units that could sit on windows. In the early 1930s David St. Pierre DuBose pioneered the concept of ductwork and vents for modern home cooling systems and Americans began adopting HVAC units in the early 1950s.

Natural Cooling Methods

Passive cooling systems can be used to create a comfortable indoor environment. That means it’s possible to maintain comfortable temperatures in a home using nonmechanical methods. The building needs to be optimized to prevent heat buildup, which mainly comes from the sun’s absorbed energy through the roof, windows and walls. About a third of undesirable heat comes from the roof while about 40 percent is from windows, which is why insulation is so important. Heat naturally rises, which is why the floor is usually the coldest part of a room.

Heat can be blocked with insulation and shading. The early 1930s marked the beginning of fiberglass insulation in homes. Attics should be well insulated otherwise they can collect a lot of heat. Trees provide adequate cooling with shade, depending on size and shape. Trees and bushes can also influence the direction of breezes. A grass lawn can help lower the surrounding temperature by about 10 degrees. Vines that cover the homes can be used for shading.

Color of the home also has a dramatic effect on cooling, as light colored exteriors reflect heat away from a building while dark colors absorb the heat. Roof color makes a huge difference whereas the effects of wall colors are not as significant.

Lessons Learned from History

We seem to have now come full circle from a life of natural cooling to electric cooling and now many people want to return to more eco-friendly cooling systems. The problem with electric air conditioners these days is that they can lead to high energy bills in the summer. When temperatures are hot, demand naturally rises for energy, which puts a strain on the system, forcing utility companies to raise rates. The high cost of energy has inspired many people reflect on sustainability.

The concept of sustainability has been permeating for decades but in 2014 appears to be well positioned for growth. The idea of wind powered fans combined with vents has become a solution for eco-friendly energy efficient housing. A way to further reduce electric bills is with solar panels integrated with a traditional HVAC system. An important lesson from the history of home cooling is that there are multiple factors that naturally affect a home’s temperature.  For tips to improve the efficiency of your home’s HVAC system, call on the experts at Snyder who can provide you with all the information you need to stay cool and save money!


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