How Air-Conditioning Invented the Modern World

It’s not often that I link to an article from The Atlantic. This article, however, comes to my attention on a day in the Chicago area that is experiencing probably its last hot and humid spell of the year. Willis Carrier, as I have noted previously, is the greatest man who ever lived (in my humble opinion).

Here is Derek Thompson writing at The Atlantic:

A new book by the economist Tim Harford on history’s greatest breakthroughs explains why barbed wire was a revolution, paper money was an accident, and HVACs were a productivity booster.

In the beginning, it wasn’t the heat, but the humidity. In 1902, the workers at Sackett & Wilhelms Lithographing & Printing Company in New York City were fed up with the muggy summer air, which kept morphing their paper and ruining their prints. To fix the problem, they needed a humidity-control system. The challenge fell to a young engineer named Willis Carrier. He devised a system to circulate air over coils that were cooled by compressed ammonia. The machine worked beautifully, alleviating the humidity and allowing New York’s lithographers to print without fear of sweaty pages and runny ink.

But Carrier had a bigger idea. He recognized that a weather-making device to control humidity had even more potential to control heat. He went on to mass-manufacture the first modern air-conditioning unit at the Carrier Corporation (yes, that Carrier Corporation), which is still one of the largest HVAC manufacturers in the world. Air-conditioning went on to change far more than modern printing—it shaped global productivity, migration, and even politics.

The story of air-conditioning—and 49 other breakthroughs—is the subject of a new book, Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, by the economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford. I spoke to him recently about some of the book’s biggest ideas, and the following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Image credit: / Congress’s air-conditioning system, photographed in 1938.