We Could Have Had AC 50 Years Earlier, But The Ice Lobby Killed It

We Could Have Had AC 50 Years Earlier, But The Ice Lobby Killed It

With another summer approaching you might have be thinking about the glory of your AC unit, the 100-year-old modern convenience that truly changed the way we live. But we might have felt the cool breeze of relief a half-century sooner, if an entire industry built on keeping things frozen hadn’t stopped the first air conditioner from being made.

Cities before air conditioning sounded, frankly, like hell, according to the new book Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything by Salvatore Basile. The rich could vacate their homes during summer, but others had no such luck, sleeping on rooftops for relief. Newspapers would publish long lists of people who had “expired” each day from heatstroke (perhaps because the best medical treatment for overheating at the time was bloodletting). Meanwhile, fashion trends dictated heavy wool and furs, even in the summer, so women simply carried smelling salts to revive themselves when they passed out.

Carrier with his air conditioner in 1907

Most people are familiar with the story (or at least the name) of Willis Carrier, who in 1906 patented his “Apparatus for Treating Air”. He founded the Carrier Corporation which developed air conditioning for industrial, and then residential, applications, improving manufacturing, changing migration patterns and generally revolutionising contemporary culture.

But it turns out another air conditioner was invented by a Florida doctor named John Gorrie more than 50 years before Carrier’s creation hit the market.

While working in a Florida hospital, Gorrie noticed that certain patients were not as susceptible to infectious diseases like yellow fever — namely ones who arrived from cooler climates. After suspending ice from the ceilings proved to be an effective way to drop the temperature in hot hospital rooms, Gorrie started inventing a method of artificial cooling that could chill air by producing ice. In 1851, he filed his patent as an ice-making machine — which was his biggest mistake.

The patent drawing for Gorrie’s ice-making machine

You can guess what happened next: Gorrie’s product was sabotaged by the companies who sold ice — a thriving industry built on the fact that you wouldn’t be able to make or keep the product at home for very long.

This NPR story reveals the nefarious behaviour of the all-powerful ice lobby, a group of Northern businessmen who made lots of money shipping and storing their product using their own expensive, proprietary methods. The idea of an household machine which could produce ice was terrifying to them, according to Marsha Ackermann, author of Cool Comfort: America’s Romance with Air Conditioning:

“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.”

One of those bigwigs was the Boston ice king Frederic Tudor, who had become famous for shipping his New England ice all over the world, including a highly publicised shipment to Calcutta in 1833 (100 tons of ice made it, still frozen). He mounted a campaign to stop Gorrie’s invention from seeing the light of day, including encouraging newspapers to poke fun at Gorrie. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the New York Globe described Gorrie as a man who “thinks he can make ice by his machine as good as God Almighty.”

Gorrie died penniless at 52, opening the door for another inventor to create the air conditioning we know today. However, Carrier’s invention had a key difference: It worked by removing humidity, not making ice. This turned out to be fortuitous in two ways: It dramatically improved the air-chilling method, but it also kept his idea safe from the evil ice barons of the north. [PressPlay, LA Times, NPR, Smithsonian]

Picture: Gorrie’s air conditioner, via the John Gorrie Museum State Park

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