In May 1922, Willis Carrier unveiled his single most influential innovation, the centrifugal refrigeration machine (or “chiller”). Over the next decade, the centrifugal chiller would extend the reach of modern air conditioning from textile mills, candy factories and pharmaceutical labs to the revolutionary work of ensuring human comfort in theaters, stores, offices and homes.
Supported by nearly 20 new patents, centrifugal chillers provided affordable, safe and efficient cooling. The first sale was made to longtime customer W.F. Schrafft and Sons Candy in Boston, though the honor of the first installation went to Philadelphia candy manufacturer Stephen F. Whitman & Son.
Other elements of modern air conditioning evolved to keep pace. Carrier partnered with three large fan manufacturers in May 1923 to found the Aerofin Corporation. Aerofin offered a lightweight, brass and copper alternative to bulky cast-iron heat exchangers.
Powered by these innovations, Carrier launched its own version of “the Roaring Twenties” in 1924 with the first in a series of historic installations. The J.L. Hudson Company, Detroit’s largest department store, installed three, 195-ton centrifugal chillers. Officially classified as comfort air conditioning, Willis Carrier noted, the installation was also designed “to meet an emergency as temperatures soared on basement bargain days—people fainted.” Other sophisticated retailers in Seattle, Boston, Cincinnati, Dallas and New York City soon followed.
Department stores proved to be the warm-up act, however, to a kind of public installation that would truly put centrifugal chillers and comfort air conditioning on the map: movie theaters. Carrier set about conquering the theater industry in three giant steps. First came the successful installation of comfort air at Sid Grauman’s Metropolitan Theatre in Los Angeles. While employing traditional ammonia refrigeration, the installation introduced two striking advances in modern air conditioning, bypass circulation and down-draft distribution systems. Together these improvements changed the economics of theater installations and improved the experience of moviegoers by replacing the cold chill of “mushroom” vents at their feet with a gentle flow of air from ceiling registers.
The Palace Theatre in Dallas and The Texan in Houston represented the second important step, becoming the first theaters to successfully install complete Carrier systems including centrifugal chillers, down-draft and bypass.
As it turned out, movie theaters often became the place that people experienced comfort cooling for the very first time.
With its "off-Broadway" work a success, Carrier took the third and most important step in movie theater comfort by installing a complete centrifugal chiller system in the Rivoli Theatre in New York City, meeting with instant acclaim.
Skyscrapers were next to benefit from centrifugal refrigeration. In 1926, the T.W. Patterson Building in Fresno, California, became the first multi-story building to be air conditioned by Carrier.
This was followed by the 21-story Milam Building in San Antonio, Texas, "the first skyscraper air conditioned from basement to roof during its construction," engineer Logan Lewis wrote. In 1928, the Frost National Bank in San Antonio became the first bank to be cooled by Carrier centrifugal refrigeration. Success led to organizational growth. In September 1929, Carrier announced the opening of a permanent Engineering and Sales office in Dallas, pointing to its installations at the Palace Theatre, the Milam Building, Halliburton-Abbott's in Tulsa, Titche-Goettinger's in Dallas and Sanger's in Fort Worth. Air conditioning had come to the American Southwest, and things would never be the same.
As Carrier reached to new heights in America, it reached to new depths internationally.
In 1928 the company installed two 76-ton centrifugal chillers in the Morro Velho Gold Mine in Brazil, an installation destined to vastly improve the working conditions of miners all over the world. Led by its London subsidiary, Carrier also planted offices in Sydney, Paris, Bombay, Johannesburg and Stuttgart throughout the decade.
Successful large installations created demand in smaller venues. In 1926, the Capital Theatre in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, became the first installation of Carrier refrigeration using the "ejector system," a boon to small theaters unable to install overhead ductwork. By 1928, Carrier was offering commercial "unit air conditioners" that allowed, for example, small-store owners to compete with comfort-cooled department stores. The success of these units led to the creation of the Standard Products Division, which sold its first unit air conditioner in February 1928 to cool the egg storage room of the Merchants Refrigerating Company in Newark, New Jersey. Sales of unit air conditioners also led to the formation of a new subsidiary, the Carrier-Lyle Corporation, which marketed an important new product, the Weathermaker, to homeowners.
With business booming and the product line expanding, Carrier purchased a second building in Newark. The older "Carrier Plant" was now home to the centrifugal shop and the company's research labs, while the newer "Lyle Plant" housed the unit products, Aerofin and the corporate offices. A year later the company built its third plant in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to handle sheet metal fabrication. This grew the company's manufacturing capacity, the Chief noted, "from none in 1921 to over five acres in 1929."
J. Irvine Lyle also challenged his partner to install in the Lyle Plant "the best air-conditioning system ever designed for an office building." The installation of a central station air-conditioning apparatus leading to under-the-window connections would turn out to be the first important step in the creation of the Weathermaster, soon to revolutionize the air conditioning of multi-room buildings.
As the company grew, Carrier and Lyle emphasized the care and education of employees. In October 1925, Carrier University was founded with six professors, 20 students and Willis Carrier as president. The following year, the company launched a Safety Organization which included seven safety inspectors. "No safety device has yet been invented," the inspectors reminded employees, "to take the place of the one just above the ears."
In 1925, Carrier tackled the United States Navy's desire to air condition the engine room of a destroyer, and in the spring placed a redesigned centrifugal refrigeration machine on board the USS Wyoming. Such specialized installations encouraged the Chief to continually improve on the success of dilene—the breakthrough refrigerant for his first centrifugal unit— leading to the introduction of products like Carrene I that would double the output of a centrifugal machine without changing its size, weight or footprint.
As the decade progressed, Carrier found the emerging broadcast industry to be a ready partner. In 1927, the company provided air conditioning to the National Broadcasting Company's new, 16-story building on Fifth Avenue in New York City, representing "the first comprehensive, scientific effort to create an ideal broadcasting center." Nearby, a compact 75-ton centrifugal machine brought comfort and efficiency to the Paramount News Laboratory, allowing an exposed film negative to be developed, dried and projected just 20 minutes from receipt.
In but a few short years Willis Carrier's centrifugal refrigeration had brought Carrier Engineering Corporation to the movies and shopping, into offices and mines and aboard naval ships, to hockey games and broadcast studios, and from Broadway to Europe, South America and Australia. Even as modern air conditioning continued to improve the productivity of global industries, comfort air had fully captured the imagination of the public.
In a February 1929 speech, Willis Carrier reminded his audience that "twenty-five years ago 'Air Conditioning' was an unknown quantity either in theory or practice. In years to come," the Chief forecast, "air conditioning and cooling for summer may become a necessity rather than a luxury, and we will look upon present times as marking the end of that 'dark age' in which there was but relatively little cooling for human comfort."
Of course, the founder of modern air conditioning and inventor of centrifugal refrigeration would be correct. But this was only February; in October 1929, Black Thursday witnessed a collapse of the stock market and the start of the longest, deepest depression in world history.
Carrier Engineering Corporation would need to remain focused, nimble and innovative if it was to build on the many firsts and enormous success of its "Roaring Twenties."