If you were to do a quick Google search for a history of modern air conditioning, you’ll most likely find volumes of information about Willis Carrier. The 1902 installation of Carrier’s system at a Brooklyn publishing company is considered the birth of modern air conditioning since his system was able to control both humidity and temperature.
Carrier’s invention was ground-breaking, no doubt, but the idea of controlling temperature goes back much further.
While not the earliest pioneer in the science behind cooled air, Dr. John Gorrie was the first to obtain a patent for mechanical refrigeration in 1851
Dr. Gorrie wasn’t an engineer per se. He actually was a physician who was born on the island of Nevis to Scottish parents in 1803, but spent the bulk of his childhood in South Carolina. After receiving his medical education at Columbia University in New York, Gorrie moved to Apalachicola, Florida in 1833 where he was a resident physician at two hospitals.
Now being residents of metro-Atlanta, we don’t have to tell you – summers here in the south can be brutal. And while Apalachicola (…located on the Gulf about an hour east of Panama City) benefits from some sea breeze, the area was hit hard by tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever.
Much of Gorrie’s medical research focused on diseases like these, which were believed at the time to be caused by bad air. Gorrie urged surrounding swamps be drained and sickrooms be cooled to help suffering patients.
To cool the rooms, Gorrie placed ice is a basin suspended from the ceiling. Since cool air is heavier, it would flow down over the patient and out through an opening in the floor. A variation of Gorrie’s makeshift cooling system was used in 1881 in treating President James Garfield.
In both cases, the big problem was the fact that it required lots of ice, which had to be brought in from northern lakes.
To address this dilemma, Gorrie set out to make the ice himself, artificially.
Around 1845, Gorrie quit his medical practice to focus on refrigeration projects full time. He was awarded a patent in 1851 for what we know today as an ice machine. A replica can be seen at the Gorrie Museum in Apalachicola.
The basic scientific principles behind Gorrie’s ice machine is pretty much the same as modern staples like refrigeration and A/C
Specifically, we’re talking about the cooling of air caused by rapidly expanding gases. See this quick explanation courtesy of Dr. Gary Ihas of the University of Florida:
“His apparatus, initially designed to treat yellow fever patients, reduced the temperature of compressed air by interjecting a small amount of water into it. The compressed air was submerged in coils surrounded by a circulating bath of cooling water. He then allowed the interjected water to condense out in a holding tank, and released or rarified, the compressed air into a tank of lower pressure containing brine; This lowered the temperature of the brine to 26 degrees F. or below, and immersing drip-fed, brick-sized, oil coated metal containers of non-saline water, or rain water, into the brine, manufactured ice bricks. The cold air was released in an open system into the atmosphere.”
Sadly, Gorrie was never able to obtain the funds to manufacture his machine, partially due to the death of his business partner. Financially broken and in failing health, Gorrie passed away in Apalachicola in 1855.
Although Gorrie himself was never able to capitalize on his invention, his concept of cooling was proven valuable in 1881 when treating President Garfield.
In the end, Gorrie can be credited with taking prior scientific understandings about refrigeration and moving the bar forward in developing something that many of us take for granted today. While not as well-known as Willis Carrier, Gorrie can rightfully take his place in history as a pioneer in climate control and A/C.