Sometimes genius arises in the most unlikely of places. For Willis Carrier, the moment of profound insight came in late fall 1902 on a cold, foggy train platform in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As he stared through the dense mist, Carrier recalled thinking, “If I can saturate air and control its temperature at saturation, I can get air with any amount of moisture I want in it. I can do it, too, by drawing the air through a fine spray of water to create actual fog.”
It was an insight so counterintuitive that it still dazzles. Willis Carrier realized that he could dry air by passing it through water, using the spray as a condensing surface.
By 1903, he had completed the apparatus first visualized on that foggy Pittsburgh evening, the world’s first spray-type air-conditioning system able to both wash and humidify or dehumidify air. Modern air conditioning now had its fundamental building block.
Soon after, Carrier conceived the idea of adjusting humidity by heating the spray water itself and controlling the dew point temperature of the air leaving the conditioning machine. With this came “dew point control” which, an early company brochure announced, was “the greatest single factor in modern air conditioning.”
In 1905, at the age of 29, Willis Carrier was made head of the Buffalo Forge Engineering Department, directing research and supervising all application and design. Shortly thereafter, Carrier’s staff began referring to him as “the Chief,” a name given out of admiration and respect.
The following year Carrier authored a catalog which offered data about his air washer and included the first psychrometric chart ever published. This catalog was designed to sell equipment and educate the entire industry. It also contained a prophecy from the Chief that “comfort” applications in public buildings, theaters, churches and restaurants would one day become common.
This was Willis Carrier at his best, grasping a broad concept well before his peers while efficiently solving a specific engineering problem. This "practical genius" gave the company its most outstanding competitive advantage: sales engineers could sell air conditioning for almost any application, convinced that the Chief could design a system suited to their customers' needs. Carrier's focus on sound economics and practical applications was reflected in his most famous creed, described in terms of one of his favorite pastimes. "The 'catch' must be edible or I don't try for it," Carrier would explain. "I only fish for edible fish and test for useful data."
The year 1907 would prove to be a historic one for Willis Carrier and his extraordinary invention. First, modern air conditioning leapt from the textile mill to the pharmaceutical plant with an installation at Parke, Davis & Company in Detroit, Michigan. Then, a proposal was made to the Huguet Silk Mill in Wayland, New York, guaranteeing a relative humidity of 65 percent throughout the entire year—the first promise of conditions and not simply equipment performance.
However, the single most enduring advance came in 1907 with the first sale of Carrier's air-conditioning equipment to an international customer, the Fuji Silk Spinning Company in Yokohama, Japan.
Installed in Fuji's Hodogaya Mill, the system reduced dust and static over 60,000 spindles, providing a showcase for modern air conditioning that astonished visitors for nearly 40 years with its positive impact on efficiency and working conditions. Carrier's efforts in Japan would increase throughout the century to include the country's first completely air-conditioned building in 1933, and four years later, the world's first completely air-conditioned ship, the 8,000-ton liner Koan Maru.
Thirty years after the Fuji installation, the Japanese Association of Refrigeration elected Willis Carrier an honorary member in recognition of his many contributions.
It was also lasting recognition that this first sale in 1907 launched a global industry that continues over a century later to expand into new regions and original applications. By late 1907, management at Buffalo Forge had fully grasped the opportunity for air conditioning and moved to create a wholly-owned subsidiary, the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America. Officially incorporated on April 18, 1909, the name was fitting recognition of Willis Carrier's leadership in this remarkable new industry.
Carrier immediately landed an important contract with the Celluloid Company, a firm making film for the new motion picture industry. As business in the textile industry expanded, the company also won contracts to install air conditioning to reduce rust on razor blades at the Gillette Safety Razor Company, in factories producing rubber, rayon, flour and baked goods, and in a Pittsburgh hospital ward for premature babies. In 1913 a system was sold to an American Tobacco Company facility in Richmond, Virginia. "I never saw such a dusty atmosphere," the Chief recalled. Going to work on the problem, he devised the first "pan outlet" to distribute air gently from the ceiling. "The results were wonderful," Carrier reported, and employees from other parts of the plant began eating lunch in the cool, clean air.
In 1911, Carrier's research and development efforts came together in the single most famous and enduring document ever prepared on air conditioning. His "Rational Psychrometric Formulae," called the "Magna Carta of Psychrometrics," was presented on December 8, 1911, at the annual meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). The Chief's invitation to this meeting recognized air conditioning as a legitimate branch of engineering and Willis Carrier as its leader. His psychometric chart, used to correlate temperature and humidity in the design of air-conditioning systems, would be reproduced in college textbooks and translated into many languages. It is the predecessor of the charts used today. At the age of 35, Willis Carrier had become internationally recognized.
By 1914, Willis Carrier completed an ambitious project to create a "compact, concise, and complete book on air" from which engineers could "design, specify, sell, buy, service, or operate the equipment that handles air." Carrier's work became the definitive text in the air-conditioning industry.
The company that bore his name sold hundreds of installations, adding malt houses, candy and processed food, breweries and meatpacking houses to its customer list. Professional societies followed the lead of ASME and included air conditioning in their programs. Consulting engineers and architects became interested in specifying air-conditioning equipment. The company's network grew rapidly, as did competition. Barely a decade old, Carrier and its engineers had placed the new industry solidly on its feet.
However, other momentous events were unfolding elsewhere. The start of war in Europe in July 1914 increased economic uncertainty, and management at Buffalo Forge elected to confine their operations to traditional manufacturing. This meant the immediate dissolution of Carrier Air Conditioning Company, with only Willis Carrier and J. Irvine Lyle to remain while all other employees of the young company were to be let go.
Just as the business had taken hold it was about to be shut down. Fortunately, Willis Carrier had other ideas.