While modern air conditioning is a relatively recent development, humans have spent thousands of years finding new ways to cool off. From massive blocks of ice to waving palm fronds, historic methods of air conditioning can help us appreciate the modern technology we often take for granted.
Our journey begins near the beginning of human history, where early humans gradually learned that there was more to comfort than a warm fire.
The Need for Comfort in Early Humans
The use of fire is often touted as mankind’s first and, potentially, greatest technological advancement. While the first-ever use predates recorded history, it’s believed that harnessing fire marked a major turning point in human evolution and social structures.
By harnessing fire, humans were then capable of cooking food and staying warm in almost any environment. This capability allowed then-nomadic humans to transition into permanent year-round settlements, marking the first stages of human society.
With permanent settlements, however, humans could no longer move with the seasons; while cold winters called for fire, hot summers called for something else.
Keeping Cool in Early Civilizations
Whether nomadic or tribal, early humans—much like ourselves today—kept cool by instinct. On hot days, trees, caves, and gentle breezes allowed for a much-needed reprieve from the scorching sun. Meanwhile, those in cold environments didn’t need to keep cool as often but could still rely on nearby glaciers or other semi-permanent ice formations when needed.
Other solutions included the occasional swim and wearing lighter clothing if any. However, as society became more advanced and humans moved into permanent dwellings, more flexible solutions were needed. After all, not everyone could go swimming or run around naked!
Small, handheld fans or plant fronds were among the first types of portable air conditioning available to most early humans. Now, instead of waiting for the lucky breeze, people could simply fan themselves cool at a moment’s notice. As societies saw the first social hierarchies, ruling figures were able to employ servants just to fan them all day!
However, fans quickly proved insufficient. The related shortcomings were especially apparent for early civilizations in warmer climates, particularly Ancient Egypt.
Ancient Egyptian Air Conditioners
While the epicenters of Ancient Egypt were likely lusher than the sandy remnants we see today, the desert heat was just as brutal back then. Where shade and fans weren’t enough, the Ancient Egyptians employed the first form of modern air conditioning on record: evaporative cooling.
Evaporative cooling is an effect where sitting water evaporates and cools the surrounding air in the process. The Egyptians were quick to devise a system of hanging wet reeds and cloths in their windows. As breezes flowed through the wet reeds, the water would evaporate and cool the nearby air. The cooled air was then carried even farther by the breeze, thereby cooling entire rooms and households.
With the combination of fanning, shades, and evaporative cooling, the Egyptians could stay cool and comfortable in an otherwise hot and uncomfortable environment. Evaporative cooling also helped to humidify the dry desert air
As Rome’s shadow grew across Ancient Egypt, wealthy Romans began devising their own methods of early air conditioning.
Ancient Roman Air Conditioners
Like the Ancient Egyptians, the Romans weren’t unfamiliar with hot, dry environments; throughout its existence, the Roman Empire straddled much of the sun-parched Mediterranean coastline.
While the Ancient Romans also used evaporative cooling, running water produced by aqueducts and early plumbing allowed for more novel applications; instead of soaked reeds or cloths hung in the windows, the Romans circulated cool running water throughout their homes, thereby lowering the temperature.
Rome’s wealth and vast trading network also allowed for the import of exotic goods, particularly snow and ice. Where the wealthiest Romans could import large blocks of ice for themselves, most Roman citizens could purchase snow at local ice stores. In either case, ice and snow were kept in underground caves and pits, often selling for more than wine!
Of course, the Romans had other means of cooling, such as early forms of the bikini and cold swimming pools known as “frigidarium.”
Once Rome fell, air conditioning technology went into a state of dormancy throughout medieval Europe. In the East, however, developments had only just begun!
The Middle Ages
Despite being the “dark ages” for medieval Europe, civilizations throughout Asia and the Middle East continued to experience rapid technological advancement. One of these areas of technological advancement was, of course, in air conditioning.
Medieval Persians, for example, continued to utilize evaporative cooling through cisterns and other forms of running water. Perhaps more interesting were their wind towers, which functioned like primitive HVAC systems to provide buildings with natural ducted ventilation.
Medieval Asia would develop the first known mechanical air conditioner in the second century AD, taking the form of massive rotary fans powered by waterwheels. Rotary air conditioners became widely used throughout medieval Asia.
Air Conditioning in the Age of Enlightenment
From the Renaissance and into the early 19th century, modern air conditioning took on its first recognizable forms.
In 1758, Benjamin Franklin and his colleague, John Hadley of Cambridge University, utilized evaporative cooling as a way to rapidly cool objects. Unlike ancient applications of evaporative cooling, however, Franklin and Hadley’s application used the evaporative of volatile liquids such as ether and alcohol. Here, they were able to cool objects to temperatures well below freezing.
This experiment would lay the groundwork for the first truly modern air conditioning.
The Industrial Revolution and the First Modern Air Conditioner
The industrial revolution of the 19th century saw perhaps some of the greatest early advancements in cooling technology.
In 1820, Michael Faraday discovered that compressed and liquified ammonia could, when evaporated, cool the air. A similar method was later utilized by James Harrison to produce an icemaker in 1851. This icemaker would result in the development of the first freezers and refrigerators.
In all of these cases, compression was largely responsible for the dramatic cooling effects. Evaporative cooling aided by compression would lead to the first developments of the modern air conditioners we use today.
American inventor Willis Carrier is most credited for the development of the first modern air conditioner. Curiously, Carrier’s air conditioners were first used to solve cooling problems in industrial applications, particularly printing plants in the first decade of the 20th century.
By utilizing evaporative cooling, Carrier’s air conditioner was able to control both temperature and humidity. It would quickly find use in public buildings as a result, with one of the earliest major applications being used as a central air conditioner in the 1904 World’s Fair.
The first half of the twentieth century would continue to see various advancements in early air conditioning, especially as electricity became a widespread power source. In 1945, Robert Sherman of Massachusetts invented the first standalone in-window air conditioner.
Modern Air Conditioning
Modern air conditioners continue to utilize evaporative cooling aided by compressors. Instead of using ether or alcohol, however, most now utilize refrigerants—chemicals engineered specifically for evaporative cooling applications. Refrigerants were not the most environmentally friendly, to begin with, but later developments would gradually improve on this. Today, modern air conditioners use a combination of compressed refrigerants and evaporative cooling to produce steady supplies of cold air.
It’s incredible to think the evaporative cooling, an effect first used by the Ancient Egyptians, is still used today to keep us cool and comfortable. While we won’t hang wet reeds in your windows, our team of experts is here to help you with modern air conditioning installation and air conditioning maintenance in Texas. Call us today at 281-994-6698.
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