The amazing story of air conditioning

You have the hot, humid workshop floor of a printing company to thank for this comfort-enhancing technology. The difference that air conditioning has made to driving is hard to overlook (air conditioning).

Gone are the days where the heat of the engine creeping through the bulkhead would leave you dripping with sweat; also gone are the days where you’d have to drop all the windows to get enough fresh air flowing through the cabin. In hotter, more humid climates the introduction of air conditioning came as even more of a godsend.

Drive a car through Florida, relying only on ambient air for cooling, and you’ll soon be enjoying a swimming pool of your own creation. This is the story behind this gamechanging technology:

Draining the swamp

The concept of using evaporative cooling, employed in the old ‘swamp coolers’ you’ll often see hanging off the side of classic American cars (like on this 1949 Hudson Commodore), dates all the way back to ancient Egypt – with air being passed through evaporating water to alter a room’s climate. PICTURE: Christopher Ziemnowicz

Paper profits

Unsurprisingly, however, the concept of the modern air conditioning systems originated from America. Its development wasn’t a result of seeking improved comfort, mind, but the result of problems with paper stock. The Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography & Printing Company (S&W), based in New York, was having problems with its paper – as the humidity in the print rooms varied, the paper would shrink or expand.

This might sound like a relatively minor issue but, for S&W, it was a serious one. Because the company was trying to print multi-colour documents (such as the intricate one pictured from 1890), in which the colours were applied one at a time, the minutely shifting dimensions of the paper wreaked havoc with the quality of each print. Production was being delayed, quality was falling, and wastage was going through the roof.


A young engineer named Willis Carrier worked for the Buffalo Forge Works, based in upstate New York (pictured).  The company was brought in by S&W to resolve the issue, and Carrrier set about building a solution. After all, existing technology let engineers control air temperature and alter the humidity of the air – but precise control of these myriad factors, particularly humidity, had not been achieved.

Climate control

Carrier (pictured in 1915) subsequently developed precision heating and chilling coils, which could precisely regulate air temperature and therefore help control the moisture content in the air. His research and designs, detailed in drawings dated July 17 1902, resulted in the first production electrical air-con system. It was fully operational at the S&W plant in early 1903. It reputedly maintained plant humidity at 55 per cent, resolving the stock size issue, and was claimed to have a cooling effect equivalent to that of melting around five tonnes of ice each day.

He also came up with the concept of an automatic regulation system, so no operator input would be required. Or, as we would call it today, climate control.  Willis Carrier struck out on his own in 1915. Today, Carrier – who died in 1950 – is one of the relatively few inventors whose name remains on his invention; air-conditioning giant Carrier Corporation today is a division of US conglomerate United Technologies.

Changing the rules

Air conditioning systems, as the technology developed, began to make their way into public buildings – and, once the general public had experienced that cooling chill, it became a much-appreciated and desired luxury. As refrigerants developed and the hardware began to get more manageable, more sectors benefited from the system, and air conditioning led to the growth of, especially, the American Sun Belt, gradually recalibrating the places Americans could comfortably live and work in.

Naturally, given their enclosed cabins, applying the technology to cars was a logical step. In 1930, refrigeration company C&C Kelvinator built an air conditioner that was installed in a customised Cadillac (pictured). As you may expect, it wasn’t exactly subtle – with a huge compressor unit slung out back. Size and complexity meant that this remained a bespoke, expensive solution.

Packard 180

Further developments led General Motors, for its upmarket Cadillac brand, to take more interest in air conditioning. Similarly, Packard – often cited as being the best luxury automobile manufacturer – saw air conditioning as a useful addition to its line-up. By late 1939 it had finalised a design and, beating GM to the punch, introduced its ‘Weather-Conditioner’, available in the Packard 180 (pictured).

The system, construction of which was contracted out to Cleveland’s Bishop & Babcock Manufacturing Company, cost $274 when it went on sale in 1940 – today, that’s equivalent to around US$5000 & £4000. Despite the hefty price tag, around 2000 Packards were equipped with the system.

Proof of concept

It featured a compressor, condenser, evaporator and drier; only one control was fitted, though, which regulated fan speed, and there was no temperature control. If you wanted to switch it off, you had to manually remove the compressor belt as no clutch system was fitted.

The complicated and primarily boot-mounted set-up was withdrawn after 1941 but the concept had been proven to work and, as technology progressed, other manufacturers picked up the baton after the war.


More practical set-ups were introduced in 1953 by GM, Chrysler and Packard.  However, in 1954 Nash achieved a breakthrough with the launch of the Ambassador (pictured), the first car to be equipped with air-conditioning as we understand it today. In 1937 Nash had merged with Kelvinator, previously mentioned.

These two companies operated in seemingly unrelated industries, but their best brains came together to tackle the problem of in-car heating and ventilation.

Weather Eye

This new approach saw the introduction of a compact, front-mounted clutched system. The ‘All-Weather Eye’ was cheaper, smaller and weighed around 60kg (132lb), half the weight of previously, and can be considered the effective parent of all subsequent systems in cars.

In 1964 Cadillac introduced a climate control system called ‘Comfort Control’ in models such as the Sedan De Ville (inset). Like today’s systems, all the driver had to do was pick the temperature and the system would strive to attain and maintain the desired climate.

In any case, as the race to improve passenger comfort gathered speed, air conditioning became far less exclusive and cheaper, to the extent that it’s quite hard to buy a new car without it in most countries today.

This ‘50s ad for Nash interestingly stresses the advantages of air conditioning in cold, not warm, weather. Whatever the climate, the technology cooked up by Carrier, Packard, Nash and all the others profoundly changed the world as we know it.

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