Did Benjamin Franklin Invent HVAC?

  • July 17, 2015
  • By MR COOL

While all America’s Founding Fathers were remarkable individuals, few were as noteworthy as Benjamin Franklin. Or maybe we should start calling him HVAC Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin. Not only did he help create the United States, Franklin’s scientific research into rapid evaporation created the foundation upon which the modern heating and air industry is built.

Did Benjamin Franklin Invent Air Conditioning?

Yes and no. While Franklin never developed a full-scale air conditioning machine, his work paved the way for the modern HVAC system.

Benjamin Franklin was a true Enlightenment thinker who believed in open scientific discovery, which is why he never patented any of his inventions. As a result, later scientists were free to take his work and expand on it as they saw fit. That later experimentation led us to the development of today’s air conditioning system.

The History of Air Conditioning

While we often take air conditioning for granted today, our ancestors certainly didn’t. The development of air conditioning is a long, fascinating story that stretches all the way back to Benjamin Franklin — and beyond.

1758 — HVAC Founding Father Benjamin Franklin

Franklin’s first foray into rapid evaporation started simply enough. Franklin noticed that on hot, breezy days, he stayed much cooler in a wet shirt than in a dry one. An obvious enough state, but Franklin was determined to find out why this was the case.

While he was living in England, Franklin got in touch with his good friend John Hadley. Hadley was a notable professor of chemistry at Cambridge University and an ideal coworker. Together, the two scientists set out to cool an object using only the observed principles of evaporation.

How did they do? Pretty darned well.

Franklin and Hadley managed to reduce the temperature of a mercury thermometer to 7 degrees Fahrenheit in a 65-degree room. When ice formed on the bulb, Franklin remarked, “From this experiment, one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.” 

Not that he would do that. If Franklin wanted you dead, he’d probably just let you fly his kite.

1842 — Early Air Conditioning in Hospitals

The next major air-cooling innovation came in the early 1840s when Floridian physician Dr. John Gorrie needed a way to improve patient care.

His original system involved shipping ice all the way from the Northern states. To get around this logistical nightmare, Gorrie began experimenting with artificial cooling technologies. He ended up creating an open ice-making system that cooled the air through rapid gas expansion.

Gorrie received the first patent for this mechanical refrigeration technology in 1851. Even today, this gas expansion principle is at the heart of most cooling systems. 

Early 1900s — First Patents for Air Conditioning

Artificial cooling development stagnated for several decades until Willis Carrier, an American engineer based in New York, began working on an air treatment solution for Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company. 

Although Sackett-Wilhelms was known for high-quality color pages, two consecutive summers of extreme heat and humidity put that reputation in jeopardy. During the printing process, the company’s magazine pages were wrinkling and swelling due to the excessive moisture in the air. To treat this problem, Carrier developed a coil system that would automatically control humidity by cooling or heating water.

Carrier patented this “Apparatus for Treating Air” in 1906. That same year, Stuart Cramer coined the term “air conditioning” after experimenting with adding moisture to the air in his textile mills using Carrier’s invention. He used the term for his future products, and it caught on quickly.

Mid-20th Century — Residential Air Conditioning

It took a while for air conditioning technology to become as widespread as it is today. While the early systems worked to cool the air in factories and public facilities, they were large, expensive and dangerous. They cooled the air using flammable refrigerants that posed a serious health and safety hazard. 

As a result, air conditioning system manufacturers switched to Freon in 1928. Freon is a trademarked name that refers to multiple different refrigerants, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). 

Home air conditioning systems using Freon became commercially available in 1932, though they were too expensive for most consumers at the time. By 1947, however, smaller, more affordable systems became available to U.S. homeowners. The technology continued to develop and grow in popularity until most new homes contained central AC in the late 1960s.

1990s and 2000s — Changes in Cooling Technology

With the passing of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and the U.S. Clean Air Act in the 1990s, the government began phasing out Freon and other environmentally damaging coolants, including:

  • CFCs: While CFCs such as CFC-12 are safer than the early refrigerants, scientists discovered that they are damaging to the ozone layer.
  • HCFCs: HCFCs originally replaced CFCs as an ozone-friendly refrigerant. However, scientists have recently discovered that they contribute to climate change.

Manufacturers are currently moving toward less damaging refrigerants such as R-410A, which is also known as SUVA 410A®, GENETRON AZ-20® and Puron®. 

The Future of Air Conditioning | MRCOOL

While today’s air conditioning technology is far from the rapid evaporation experiments of the 18th century, Franklin and Hadley’s work was a major step toward what would eventually become the refrigeration cycle. Modern technology relies on this principle for air conditioners, heat pumps, freezers, ice machines and a whole lot more. So, the next time you’re enjoying a cool air comfort from a MRCOOL AC unit, take a moment to thank HVAC Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin. And John Hadley, too — but mainly Franklin.

Click here to find a MRCOOL dealer near you, or contact us for more information.

3 thoughts on “Did Benjamin Franklin Invent HVAC?”

  1. Franklin was by far not the only one working with compressed and evaporative cooling, the experimentation was going on in Europe and would move over into America as well. When you look at the broad spectrum of discoveries and setbacks of the work toward cooling systems, you can see that there wasn’t one person, not especially one American as is often told, that discovered the “secret” but the work of many that built upon each other, improved upon each other. By the time big industry realized research on improvements could render a seriously profitable market, companies banded together to hire chemists and engineers and even some engineers developed their own companies to hire engineers and chemists and so the story goes. This over simplification really does no one any favors.

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