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invention of the air conditioner

Weathermakers to the World

Despite the Great Depression, Carrier Corporation never stopped investing in the art and science of air conditioning leading the industry in railroad and marine applications, and pioneering the creation of efficient systems for business and home. The company extended its reach to markets in every corner of the globe, enhancing its unparalleled position as “Weathermakers to the World.”


While Carrier continued its leadership in large, industrial air-conditioning systems, it also felt a pressing need to develop unitary equipment, the new term for factory-assembled air conditioners that could be sold as standalone units and appliances. The industry was changing rapidly, Willis Carrier observed, and “it seemed that every manufacturer suffering from lack of sales began looking to air conditioning as a possible field.” Consequently, late in 1930, Carrier Engineering Corporation merged with the Brunswick-Kroeschell Co., which manufactured small commercial refrigerators and commercial comfort air-conditioning systems, and with the York Heating & Ventilating Corp., maker of unit heaters. Now rich in both engineering and manufacturing expertise, the new Carrier Corporation adopted the slogan “Weathermakers to the World.” 

One of the vital markets tackled by Willis Carrier was the railroad. In 1929, he began working on a steam ejector refrigerating system that used water as the refrigerant. 

“The first demonstration of the possibility of cooling a railway passenger car was made at the Baltimore and Ohio shops in 1929,” Carrier recalled. Then, at a Carrier Corporation open house in 1931, radio commentator Lowell Thomas reported enthusiastically that “A most imposing list of railroad executives journeyed over to Newark, New Jersey, and there … they stepped into an old, obsolete car. Outside it was warm as blazes. Inside the car the temperature was 74, cool and pleasant. And what made it so cool? Why, steam! Yes—hot steam! Scalding hot steam! A new system had been devised for cooling railroad trains.” 

This was the nature of Willis Carrier’s genius: In 1903 he realized that water could be used to dry air, and a generation later he recognized that steam could be used to cool water.

Carrier clearly understood the importance of this market segment when he said, "While theatres, department stores and restaurants have undoubtedly played an important part, it is believed that the greatest impetus to public acceptance came through the wholesale adoption of air conditioning by the railroads."

Throughout the decade, Carrier Corporation also made great strides forward in the marine market, equipping ships ranging from the venerable USS Constitution, to large luxury liners like the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. Demonstrating company versatility, another team built a full-sized replica of a food store in the back lot of the Newark plant, dazzling a large contingent of chain-store executives—just as it had railroad executives—with the power of Manufactured Weather. Carrier also entered a third important market, human health, when it air conditioned hospitals in Mexico City and in Cairo, Egypt. Closer to home, the Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City used a Carrier cold diffuser in its cryotherapy room to maintain a constant room temperature during cold temperature treatment of cancer patients. By 1940, the American Medical Association's Council on Physical Therapy accepted Carrier room ventilators equipped with a pollen-type filter and authorized the use of the AMA seal.

In 1931, the new Carrier Corporation demonstrated the logic of its merger by introducing the Atmospheric Cabinet, a room cooler with a fan, cooling coil and filter enclosed in a cabinet, and a refrigerating machine located outside the room.

Showing that it had not forgotten how to think big, however, the company was simultaneously providing air conditioning for one of the greatest groups of modern structures in the world, New York's Rockefeller Center. Two years later it completed an installation at the new home office of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. in New York City designed to cool 6,500 people, the largest completely air-conditioned office building in the world.

About this time, Willis Carrier approached Cloud Wampler, a banker in Chicago who managed the building in which Carrier Corporation housed its Midwest offices. The Chief was seeking a reduction in rent, but his conversation also led to Wampler joining the company as a financial advisor. Later, Wampler remembered Carrier's cost-cutting dictums. "We will not do less research and development work," he told me. "We will not discharge the people we have trained, and we will all work for nothing if we have to."

Most remarkable in a decade of hard times, Carrier Corporation's international reach grew spectacularly. Through an ever-expanding network of partners and distributors, the company introduced commercial air conditioning and comfort air to television studios in Moscow and newspaper plants in South Africa, government buildings in Egypt and Norway, and projects in Iraq, China, India, South America and Singapore.

Responding to the emerging residential market, the company had founded subsidiary Carrier-Lyle in 1928, enlisting engineer Margaret Ingels the following year to promote the advantages of Manufactured Weather in the home. By May 1931, 600 Carrier Room Weathermakers had been installed. While bulky by today's standards, the product was still able to advertise itself as "Half the size, half the price, yet double the protection against weather discomfort."

While the company expanded, it paid keen attention to its business practices, laying out its first formal ethics policy in 1932.

Expectations included an emphasis on high-quality research and sound engineering, the use of quality materials and excellent workmanship, and a focus on industrial efficiency and human comfort. Anyone dealing with Carrier, the memo stated, should be offered a "courteous, efficient and square policy."

Expansion of the company and reduction in the size and complexity of its units also meant changes in selling practices. In June 1933, the company adopted a dealer program that was to become central to its future success. Some 30 dealers bought $500,000 worth of Carrier products that first year. By 1947, purchases rose to $15 million, and in 1958, dealers purchased $57 million worth of Carrier air conditioning.


Meanwhile, Willis Carrier's fame grew. City Trust Company in Philadelphia awarded him the John Scott medal "For the Invention of Processes and Apparatus for Air Conditioning and Refrigeration." In 1934, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers awarded Carrier its highest award, the ASME medal. Two years later the Japanese Association of Refrigeration recognized Carrier on the 25th anniversary of the presentation of the psychometric formulae by electing him an honorary member. 

Despite the Depression, Carrier continued to innovate, introducing the Conduit Weathermaster System for large, multi-unit buildings and skyscrapers. The system was designed to distribute moisture-controlled air through narrow ducts at high velocity, allowing the air to be cooled or heated at the point of delivery by individually controlled units. The company sold its largest Weathermaster installation to the Pentagon, and cooled the Statler Hotel in Washington, D.C., the last hotel in the nation to be built before entry into World War II.

On November 18, 1937, more than 700 people crowded the Hotel Syracuse ballroom to welcome the city's newest major industry. Carrier Corporation, seeking to consolidate its post-merger manufacturing, engineering and administrative facilities, had considered 40 cities before deciding on Syracuse, New York. Six hundred employees and their families made the move, and five plants in four cities were united in one, 30-acre location.

While Depression-era consumers were still hesitant to embrace air conditioning, a 1938 Fortune magazine article indicated that the stars were aligning. "Air conditioning … is becoming a competitive necessity in summer wherever customers come to eat, drink, or buy. It has broken into office buildings, hotels, homes. It is almost taken for granted on Pullman cars. Ships, government buildings, hospitals have come to use it." Much of the difficult work of selling into new and tentative markets had been done by Willis Carrier and his talented engineering teams.

President Lyle summarized the first decade of Carrier Corporation by reminding his staff that "We have been through two drastic depressions. We have merged and finally digested three organizations into one. We have moved and unscrambled the chaos of materials, machinery and men caused by the moving. We have all worked hard and now we can see order coming out of the mess.

"I can honestly say to you that the future looks to me to be brighter for this corporation than at any time."

Indeed, an industry that had contributed so much to the efficiency of global manufacturing, and had made such important inroads in theaters, restaurants, stores, hotels, trains, ships and offices, finally seemed ready for its leap into the massive home market. But first, the people of Carrier—and the entire world—would have to turn their attention to war.

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